Editorial: Sally Ride, couples and inequality

Sally Ride, foreground, and Tam O-Shaughnessy discuss the Sally Ride, foreground, and Tam O-Shaughnessy discuss the role of women in science and how the earth's climate is changing during an ALA conference in Anaheim, Calif. Photo Credit: AP, 2008

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Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, never wanted to be lionized. And she certainly didn't want to be held out as special because of her gender or sexual orientation.

Ride was a quiet, accomplished astronaut, educator, author and entrepreneur. After her death this week at age 61, it was announced that she had a female life partner of 27 years, Tam O'Shaughnessy. Ride and O'Shaughnessy were not married, an act only briefly legal for same-sex couples in their home state of California. Even if they had been, many of the benefits marriage confers would not have been available to them.

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Thanks to the federal Defense of Marriage Act, the federal government is not required to recognize same-sex marriages -- which means that more than 1,000 federal provisions, contingent on marital status, can be unavailable. Same-sex married people cannot claim spousal Social Security benefits, avoid estate taxes, or qualify for food stamps as a couple. Military or NASA workers like Ride can be denied married housing, health care and other benefits. Numerous constitutional challenges have been brought against the act, mostly successfully, and the issue has arrived at the U.S. Supreme Court. The court could announce by late September whether it will hear a Massachusetts case challenging the law.

The Defense of Marriage Act never should have been passed by Congress or signed into law by President Bill Clinton. Now the nation's highest court will have a turn at getting it right. Ride's death, and life, won't affect that at all. But the court of public opinion matters too, and those who oppose equal rights for same-sex spouses need to consider Ride's example. She was an American hero and a willing public servant. She had no "homosexual agenda," and conducted her personal life with a quiet dignity. But she was in a committed relationship for 27 years, and she and her partner deserved the option of marrying and accessing the same rights available to married heterosexual couples. And so do all the Sally Rides, and their partners, who aren't famous.

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