Domestic Double Standard: What About Sally Ride’s Partner?

Sally Ride risked her life for her country, and yet her domestic partner of 27 years will not get her government benefits. Is that any way to treat a hero?

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Curtis Compton / American Library Association / AP

In this 2008 photo made available by the American Library Association, Sally Ride, foreground, and her longtime partner Tam O' Shaughnessy discuss the role of women in science during an ALA conference in Anaheim, Calif.

Sally Ride was the first American woman in outer space. Upon hearing the news of her death last week, media outlets and celebrities alike celebrated Ride as a hero. But under federal law, Ride’s domestic partner of 27 years will not receive death benefits or Social Security payments. Is that any way to treat a hero?

(MORE: Sally Ride, First American Woman in Space, Dies at 61)

Even though the majority of Americans now support the right of same-sex couples to marry and more states are embracing marriage equality, 1,138 federal benefits, including Social Security and family medical leave, are still denied to same-sex couples even if they’re married because of the Defense of Marriage Act enacted in 1996. And while 60% of Fortune 500 companies offer domestic-partnership benefits to employees — so unmarried same- or opposite-sex partners qualify for health insurance, paid family leave and more — the federal government does not.

According to NASA documents, Sally Ride’s domestic partner Tam O’Shaughnessy could receive life-insurance payments if Ride designated O’Shaughnessy as her beneficiary. But despite the fact that our nation owes Ride a debt of gratitude for her unique service, our nation will not be paying her life partner the survivor annuity and basic death benefits provided to the surviving family members of heterosexual astronauts.

(MORE: Coming Out in Hip-Hop: Frank Ocean’s Powerful Moment)

Obituaries say Ride left NASA right around the time she began her relationship with O’Shaughnessy. They went on to start a business, Sally Ride Science, and lived together in San Diego. Ride did not broadcast her relationship but didn’t hide it either, according to her sister Karen “Bear” Ride. Had Ride worked at NASA while living with O’Shaughnessy, the discrimination would have been even more pronounced. According to NASA documents, Ride could not have qualified for extended family medical leave to care for her partner or get health or life insurance for her. And if Ride had, God forbid, died during a space mission, O’Shaughnessy would not have received those death benefits either.

This is not the fault of NASA, which seems in its policies to do everything possible to recognize and respect domestic partnerships within the constraints of the law. Rather, this is a discriminatory federal policy that affects all government employees and, since same-sex marriages are not recognized for federal purposes under the Defense of Marriage Act, all Americans. In May, a Senate committee on homeland security and government affairs passed legislation that would extend federal benefits to same-sex domestic partners. The bill enjoys support from Republicans and Democrats, but it remains stalled in Congress.

(MORE: Why Voluntary Taxation Is a Bad Idea)

Of course, it’s important to recognize that we’ve come a long way. In 1983, when Ride became the first American woman in space, if she had been openly gay or even discovered to be quietly in a relationship with a woman, she would have likely been denied security clearance and possibly fired. Since then, the government has revised its practice of denying security clearances on the basis of sexual orientation. But that doesn’t change the fact that hundreds of thousands of federal employees still face discrimination for being gay, including what benefits are available to their partners.

(MORE: What the Rev. Jesse Jackson Has to Say About Gay Marriage)

When Sally Ride was in the space shuttle, risking her life for the United States government, she enjoyed a view out the window that most of us can only imagine — a glowing blue and green orb of humanity idealized at a distance.  Sadly, on the ground, the reality of how we treat one another can be far more ugly. We should spend less time puzzling over why Ride remained quietly in the closet and was not an activist for gay rights and focus our critique on the laws and systems of injustice for federal workers and their same-sex partners. Sally Ride was the first American woman in outer space. Our government should not treat her partner like an alien.


Having been in a 31 year heterosexual domestic partnership I believe domestic partnerships should be recognized as a legal relationships period whether it is between a man  and woman or man and man or woman and woman. A marriage license doesn't make a marriage. It's nothing more than more legalese, a contract that someone felt was a necessity at a certain time in history. A marriage license is not a commitment.  

A marriage license should not be your only ticket to shared benefits including insurance and social security. I hope no one thinks Social Security benefits are a "free hand out' here. Most working people have paid into this system all their working lives and deserve that money plus any interest on it when they retire or the surviving designee(s) of their choice deserve it not the government. 


The assumption here is that because it sucks that her partner doesn't get benefits is that it should be changed.  I agree you should be able to leave your benefits to any one person that you pick.  Gay, child,neighbor, etc....What would make me happier than that would be to do away with ALL government giveaways.  Let people come up with their own individual retirement and let the government stay out ALL TOGETHER.  Personal responsibility.  I don't care who is gay, straight or polka dotted.  Stop taking social security out of our paychecks and let people get their own individual life insurance to protect their family if something happens to them.  More government rules is not the answer.  Less is the answer.  There should be NO rules regarding marriage, to anyone.  There should be no marriage tax break and for that matter NO income tax.  If a national sales tax were implemented then the richer, or those who buy more would pay more, as well as people who currently " cheat" on their reported income, etc.... You liberals and republicans get it all wrong and think that more rules means help for "certain groups".  The individual is the most stomped on minority in the US.  Less Government, Less Government.  Their should be NO definition of marriage except by the individual or their church etc... If their were no economic perks for marriage, their would be none of this arguing about "who" should be married.  Though morally, I am opposed to gay marriage I certainly don't care if others choose that.  If you force me to "choose" to support it then it pisses me off.  It makes more sense to take ANY state or federal endorsement for anyones marriage away.  Who cares, is what I say.  


And there it is.

DNC Platform to Include Support for Gay Marriage

Scott Sturgis
Scott Sturgis

it isn't a republican or democratic way (and those who are playing that stupid game are a big part of the problem)  It is how AMERICANS teat their own. Just the same way we treat our vets, our homeless .. our poor .. we have become a country of "me" not "us". It's disgusting  and makes us look like selfish little children to the world.

Cory Dorschel
Cory Dorschel

This article emphasizes the fact that equal rights for EVERYONE needs to be a Federal mandate, not state. There are too many rights and benefits not given if the Federal Government does not step in and make it official.

This is not the only travesty to occur between a committed marriage between two consenting adults. Annie Leibovitz spent hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of her money in supporting her partner Susan during her battle with cancer. Sadly, Susan succumbed and Annie lost her long time love. Adding insult to injury, as NYS didn't recognize their marriage, Annie lost half of everything they owned and was taxed heavily, a privledge awarded to their married counterparts. It cost Annie everything, almost her life savings, just to keep the home they lived in.

As well, years ago two women ventured from Washington State to Florida for a cruise with their children. As life partner's for many years, right before boarding one of the suffered a major aneurism, leaving her in critical care in a Florida hospital. Her partner was denied the right in being with her as she was not considered a family member. A nurse was on record during the ensuing law suit as stating "If you don't like the laws, move" (paraphrasing of course). Her partner died without being by her side.

This could all be remedied if any politician, Republican or Democrat, grew the ****s to say enough is enough and make it a Federal issue, not state. While strides in equal rights have been made, many have placed us further behind. North Carolina decided on banning same sex marriage this year, and some states are following their lead.

Until our government steps in and gives the same rights to those who deserve it, we are not all "created equal" and discrimination is alive and well in the United States.


Jamie B: (Since Time won't let me "Reply" to you).

Why do you put words in people's mouths, or attribute to them things which were never spoken?

I have never heard ANY Christian (Except those wacko's at Westboro Baptist) say homosexuality is a crime or against the law.

Now, as far as your comparison of the homosexual/Christian disagreement with that of islam/Christian problem.

Christians DON'T BEHEAD homosexuals. Christians don't circle a homosexual club or bath house, stand outside with guns, light the building on fire, and shoot any trying to escape. Muslims do that to Christians DAILY!

Your analogy is about as intolerant and hateful as any I have EVER heard.

Maybe you need, scratch that, YOU NEED to EDUCATE yourself a little, A LOT, about Christianity and islam, and the stands of both on free speech, freedom of religion, or just freedom in general.

Chick-fil-A: The homosexual community attacked Chick-fil-A (only the latest in many attacks against those with a different opinion that homosexuals), because the CEO said he is a Christian, homosexuality is a sin, and that homosexual marriage is wrong. Not only did the homosexuals attack Chick-fil-A, but every group they set money to. They also attack the ENTIRE CHRISTIAN FAITH!

I am a Born Again Christian, and I believe the Word of God. God says homosexuality is a sin. End of discussion.

But OH NO, the homosexuals don't like that, so they attack anybody who disagrees with them.

I went to a church ((Baptist) and we had a Evangelist come to speak. He was known for his anti-homosexual stand. The reaction was unbelievable. Homosexuals BUSSED in hundreds of homosexuals to disrupt the services.  Vandalized cars, property, harassed the Congregants, assaulted some, disrupted services with cursing, name calling and just general hate.

Now, you wish to discuss "tolerance" with me or any Christian?

My bad, I forgot, "tolerance" to homosexuals (and liberals in general) is "Tolerate what we want and believe ONLY. IF it doesn't agree with OUR (liberal) opinions, it is HATE SPEECH, HOMOPHOBIC, INTOLERANT.

Yeah, tolerance, what a laugh.

Oh, and since we are on islam, did you know that islam KILLS homosexuals? Now, try and run homosexual marriage by them


This is shameful, just shameful.

And for those wanting to blame one political party or the other, I say bah to that.  There's enough blame on both sides to go around.


Thanks for this article and your reporting.  What you do is appreciated.

I posted it to my LGBT Group on LinkedIn to spur members to read your article and to make comment. I also scooped it at Scoop.It on my LGBT Times news mashup.

Link to group >>

All LGBT+ and community allies.... please come join me and 15,000+ of your soon to be great connections on LinkedIn. The member base represents 80% of the world's countries.  As well as the down stream in my LInkedIn personal connections that reach over 24 million potential live stream viewers on LinkedIn alone.

The group is strictly professional office friendly dialog, posting and profiles / profile images. I've been told by many that it may well be one of the best run / managed groups on LinkedIn. 

You can be as out or private as you like and I provide instructions on how to set those preferences (In the Manager's Choice area). 

It's core value is - Visibility can lead to awareness which can lead to equality. Come stand with us and increase our visibility on the globe's largest professional networking site. Be a professional who just happens to be LGBT - or a welcomed community ally. 

Rusty Kuntz
Rusty Kuntz

People forget that congressmen and women and other

government officials are unavoidably "of" the people; meaning they

are not "aliens" not an outside society, with views on life that do

not reflect the views and beliefs of the common American. The reason the laws

in America are the way they are, is because the "people" of America

want them that way. The people includes the public, the press, congress, HOR,

military officials, and Judges, and the President; if you want to change laws

in America, you must first change the thinking of the majority; if you do, that

law will change. Don't just blame congress, Blame the People!


Homosexuals make up around 3% of the population.

Homosexuals feel they deserve special rights.

Homosexual marriage, for one.

Every State, EVERY State that has put up homosexual marriage to a vote, it (proposal for homosexual marriage) has been OVERWHELMINGLY DEFEATED.

But, it does not matter what the people want in a Democratic Republic, no, only what 3% of the population wants is what matters.

Like MA. They were ORDERED by the Court to pass a homosexual marriage law.


That is the Legislatures job. The Courts only rule on the legality of a particular law brought before them.

Like homosexuals always demanding "tolerance" and "acceptance", yet, when, let's say, oh, Christians, who believe and live the Word of God say that homosexuality is a sin and wrong, well, they are just "intolerant, bigoted, homophobic haters".

Now, that sounds REAL tolerant of others views, doesn't it?

You know, you MUST tolerate OUR point of view, but to hell with YOUR point of view.

Oh, forgot. Liberals, they expect you to tolerate all their garbage, but have NO TOLERANCE for ANYONE who disagrees with them. Liberal = Hypocrite.

Homosexual = Hypocrite.

And Chick-fil-A is a PRIME example.

Since the CEO believes in God, and believes in Jesus Christ, and believes the Bible is the Word of God, and that the word of God says homosexuality is a sin, well, "that's just intolerant, we have to put them put of business".

So, if the homosexuals want tolerance, they will need to SHOW tolerance. Yeah, like that will ever happen.

Oh, one further thing. Christians DO NOT HATE HOMOSEXUALS. We hate the SIN, but not the sinner. I know you liberals will never be able to understand that.


She (Rides lesbian lover) does not deserve any type of payments of any kind in regards to Sally Ride.

I realize that homosexual partners deserve more rights then heterosexual "partners", and they (homosexuals) deserve special laws and concessions that nobody else gets, but the U.S. hasn't yet gotten to the point where we completely ignore the Constitution, and it's "Equal Protection under the Law" and allow homosexauls to have whatever, whenever they want.

When the laws that apply to homosexual "domestic partners" is EQUALLY applied to heterosexual "domestic partners", maybe then an article like this would be appropriate.

But for now, it's just PANDERING to a "special interest group" for special rights.

Now, I am going to Chick-fil-A for a nice chicken sandwich. Gotta show my support for a company that has been unduly harassed by bigoted, intolerant, hateful, hypocritical homosexuals  for having a belief that differs from theirs.

Donna west
Donna west

Sally Ride is a hero and her partner should receive benefits. However, the majority of Americans do not support gay marriage, and witnessed by the fact that every state that has brought it up for a vote has defeated it. I wish the dumbass liberal media would report the facts and not their agenda. You say more states are embracing marriage equality, but the reality is that only 7 states have embraced it, and of those, at least one is getting ready to put it to the public for a vote, where it will be defeated again.  Maybe, Liberal Media, if you stopped pushing your agenda so hard, lying about it at ever chance you get, the public might respond better to equal rights for all.


Q - What is the difference between Sally Ride and a Saltine?

A - One is a crack snacker!


Difficult to tackle this subject without offending somebody which is not what I intend to do. For the record I believe that people have the right to live as they chose and not by imposed ideas from others, I will also state I am heterosexual.

If we can separate the topic of marriage as a legal covenant from the religious significant I believe everybody will be happier. The legal covenat would take care of the main issues presented in the article, by separating them from the religious covenant we also protect the people that prefer to follow their religious beliefs.

In Napoleonic code there is a clear separation between a civil ceremony and a religious ceremony, only the civil ceremony has legal standing, the religious ceremony means nothing in a court of law.

Perhaps we screwed up when we mixed them into a single ceremony and we have rabbis, priests, ministers, etc performing marriage civil ceremonies "by the power invested in me (fill your state)".

J.p. Finnerty
J.p. Finnerty

So glad someone wrote an article on this injustice. Thanks. And thank you Mrs. Ride and Mrs. O’Shaughnessy.


Sally Ride was no hero - just a federal employee. Army Joes who put their lives on the line for our country (for our lives) are bona fide  heroes. The fact is there were people standing in line for her job. If anything, she was a fabricated "hero".


Several thoughts.

1. Did either of these women ever express that they thought she deserved or needed the benefits?

2. Does Ms O'Saughnessy have benefits of her own that would make this a moot point?

3. How can we know if these women would have ever married and remained married until death do them part?

4. Did Ms Ride provide for her in her will? If not, then she probably would not want her to receive survivor benefits?

5. Has Ms O'Shaughnessy expressed concern about this?

I guess I'm just wondering if this is/was a concern for these two women or are people who are not involved in their personal and private lives jumping on a bandwagon for their own purposes.


@Palerider1957 the bible says many things are sins that people do every single day that aren't considered sins today. Quit using the bible as a weapon to justify your hatred.

Jardin J
Jardin J

You must not be familiar with Citizen's United.


You know, if it were up to "the People," there would still be Jim Crow in the South and discriminatory policies on all sorts of things. 

Jardin J
Jardin J

You are missing the point. No one cares about your reading of the bible. The question is whether or not the majority can keep rights away from the minority. You seem to think the LBGT community wants something extra, but they don't. The surviving partner of Ms. Ride should have everything her husband would have had.

You have the freedom to hate homosexuality, Muslims, immigrants, Jews, black people, or whomever you want. But it is un-American to say "you can't have the same rights because you look/act differently." We are supposed to have a separation of Church and State. It's time to make that dream a reality.But if you want to live in a country ruled by religious text, feel free to move to Saudi Arabia.


In fact, homosexuals are probably about 10% - 11% of the population.

And they're not asking for "special rights."  That's a canard.  They just wants the rights that everyone else gets: to live without being systematically harrassed, to marry the persons they love, and to be able to be "next of kin" for emergencies and so forth.  They want to get the same benefits for their spouses and themselves that everyone else gets.

What's so "special" about that?  I'm sorry that you have the idea that there are some groups who don't deserve equal rights, but, really, I think that as a nation, we're beyond that.

Jamie B
Jamie B

You know, the difference is that what Christians believe has the backing of law. Your belief that homosexuality is a crime means the some people aren't allowed to marry. Something that even if sinful in your view harms no one. Unless homosexual marriages caused the breakdown of Kim Kardashian's marriage.

And if indeed 3% of the population doesn't matter, then no Christian should complain that Christians minorities in Muslim countries don't get to worship as they wish, or that the Muslim majority needs to tolerate Christians in any way.

Tolerance, by the way, works better coming from the majority who have the power. 3% of the population isn't going to put Chick-fil-A out of business, so the tolerance you ask for is irrelevant. 

But let's put it to the test, if gay people said ok, we'll eat at Chick-fil-A, would you vote to allow them to marry?

One more thing, if you don't hate homosexual people, but only homosexuality (the sin), why is this entire post about the people?  


Well, then, NONE of the astronauts was a hero.  But their wives got benefits.