LGBT — July 24, 2012 at 11:17 am

Astronaut and physicist Sally Ride passed away this week, her partner to receive NO federal benefits (UPDATED)


THIS is how we treat our heroes?

Astronaut and Stanford physicist Sally Ride passed away this week from pancreatic cancer. She was the first American* woman and the youngest American of either gender to travel into space. My family has a small but important (to us) connection with Dr. Ride. When my daughter was in grade school, she had a project where they dressed as their heroes and, during an open house, played the role of their hero, answering questions and chatting with the parents that visited. My daughter chose Sally Ride and was there, dressed in a blue jumpsuit and sporting my motorcycle helmet, a third grade astronaut. Her picture even ended up in the local newspaper.

Since her hero was still alive, I suggested that she write Dr. Ride a letter and include a copy of the newspaper article. She did and Dr. Ride sent her back a really terrific note along with a signed 8½” x 11″ color photo, her official NASA picture, inscribed with “Reach for the stars, Arleigh!”

When Dr. Ride, a lesbian, passed away this week, she left behind her partner of 27 years, Dr. Tam O’Shaughnessy. Because of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), O’Shaughnessy will receive no federal benefits, benefits she would receive if she were a man. Despite their life-long partnership, she is treated as if she were just an acquaintance.

The two met when they were 12 years old.

Like Ride, O’Shaughnessy was interested in science from a very young age, and “one of her favorite childhood memories is of watching tadpoles in a creek gradually sprout legs, go green, and turn into frogs,” according to her bio on the Sally Ride Science website.

After moving on from tadpoles to high school, Tam O’Shaughnessy attended Georgia State University, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology. She went on to teach college biology, then went on to earn a Ph.D. in school psychology from the University of California, Riverside, after her interest in the psychology of learning was piqued by her experience as a professor. {…}

The two became partners in 1985 — two years after Sally Ride’s history-making NASA flight — but they first met while playing tennis at the age of 12 years old. They were together until the very end, when Ride died Monday in La Jolla, Calif., after inspiring a nation to dream big.

Dr. Ride was well-respected, considered a hero by many Americans including my daughter. Mitt Romney had this to say:

“Today, America lost one of its greatest pioneers. The first American woman in space, Sally Ride inspired millions of Americans with her determination to break the mold of her time. She was a profile in courage, and while she will be missed, her accomplishments will never be forgotten.”

It may be that she was a hero and a pioneer. But, thanks to the small-mindedness of conservatives and anti-gay activists in this country including Mitt Romney who promises to defend DOMA, Dr. Ride’s widow, Dr. O’Shaughnessy, will be treated as a second class citizen without the benefits due to a surviving widow of an American hero.

That is our national shame.

UPDATE: While the President Obama did extend some federal benefits to domestic partners of federal employees, there are still some benefits they still do not receive, including a death benefit. From the NASA website:

  • Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) – Up to 12 workweeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period for birth of a child and the care of child, placement of a son or daughter with the employee for adoption or foster care, care of a family member with a serious health condition, etc.
  • Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB) & Federal Employees Dental/Vision Insurance Program (FEDVIP)
  • Federal Employees Group Life Insurance (FEGLI)
  • Federal Retirement Death Benefit

* As was pointed out by Martin in the comments, Dr. Ride was the first American woman in space. The honor for the first woman ever in space went to Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova who piloted Vostok 6 on June 16, 1963. I appreciate the correction.

[CC Ride patch image credit: Diorama Sky | Flickr, Ride image credit: NASA]

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