July 28, 2012

Sally Ride "Versus" Billie Jean King


Upon her death and the one line “coming out” in her obituary, Andrew Sullivan takes issue with Sally Ride for not revealing her sexual orientation years ago, while she was alive. Beyond the necessary footnote that she didn’t hide her sexual preference or her 27 year relationship with Tam O’Shaughnessy, she just didn’t broadcast it either, I’m fascinated by Sullivan’s use of this photo in his post/rant.

To really appreciate his intention with the picture, though, it’s helpful to understand the circumstances of the photo. The caption reads:

Former tennis star Billie Jean King and former astronaut Sally Ride arrive at the induction ceremony for the California Hall of Fame December 6, 2006 in Sacramento, California. The Hall of Fame, which was conceived by California first lady Maria Shriver, is inducting King, Ride, Alice Walker, Ronald Reagan, Cesar Chavez, Walt Disney, Amelia Earhart, Clint Eastwood, Frank Gehry, David D. Ho, John Muir and the Hearst and Packard families.

In the context of his post, the photo works like a comparison of two not just famous, but legendary women, one supposedly courageous enough to live openly as a lesbian, the other unwilling. That’s not just my read of Sullivan’s intention, though, based on Andrew’s frustration with Ride and the fact King happens to be standing next to the former astronaut and scientist in the photo he chose. Sullivan reveals as much in his rebuttal to a reader defending Ride when he emphasizes how the tennis star had had the courage to come out way back in 1981. (He doesn’t mention, to a disastrous effect on her career.)

Given his stance and the fact the photo was taken at a ceremony honoring the contributions of these California luminaries to society, Sullivan can’t help but intimate hypocrisy back onto the picture, and the award, as well.

There is some additional context to the photo, however, that informs the supposedly random juxtaposition in a more real way. Rather than two (gay, female) cultural legends who just happen to be standing nearby at an awards ceremony (King, yes, already five years out of the closet), the women were hardly strangers. They had been acquainted all the way back to the time Ride, a junior tennis star, played #1 for Stanford and was encouraged to turn pro by none other than King. Here’s Billie Jean’s tweet, in fact, reacting to news of Ride’s death, drawing special to Ride’s educational foundation:

Screen shot 2012 07 27 at 10 35 23 PM

I don’t know whether King saw the Daily Dish post, but I assume she would have disapproved of Sullivan using her to make less of another female hero and at least as historic a cultural role model.

(photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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