Since the announcement of Sally Ride's death July 23 made it clear she was not only the first woman in space but also the first lesbian, there has been much discussion as to why she never came out publicly. Most, including her sister, out lesbian Bear Ride, have ascribed it to her private nature, but some also acknowledged the space program's culture would have been less than friendly to openly LGBT people in the 1980s.
But things change. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration now has an LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination policy, and some of its locations have LGBT employee groups. While the atmosphere varies from one location to another, "NASA is very supportive," says Steve Riley, chairman of the Out & Allied Employee Resource Group at Johnson Space Center in Houston.
"I'm sure, back in Sally's day, it was nowhere near that supportive," Riley says. His group has only been officially recognized for a year, but management's been encouraging and even active in the formation of the group. "This was an effort by our director, a former astronaut, Michael Coats," Riley says.
"If you can talk about the real you at work, you're going to be more productive and dedicated," he says. Today Out & Allied has 100 members, and last year members marched in Houston's LGBT pride parade as an official NASA contingent.
Just as Ride inspired a generation of women to consider space exploration as a career, her posthumous coming-out and NASA's increasingly inclusive environment is likely to inspire more LGBT people to go into the field. "That's my hope," Riley says. That means a future with out and proud astronauts. "There will absolutely be a day when we see that."