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.

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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.

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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.

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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.