Over the summer, the private life of NASA astronaut Anne McClain became very public when, in the midst of legal claims made against the astronaut by Summer Worden, it was revealed that Worden was McClain's wife.
This has made McClain the first active astronaut who has been out as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. But, regardless of how her identity was revealed, will this change how astronauts who are members of the community feel and are treated?
Space.com spoke with Tam O'Shaughnessy, who co-founded the science education company Sally Ride Science with her life partner, NASA astronaut Sally Ride, about McClain and the difficulties that may face astronauts who are part of the LGBTQ+ community.
"At first, I have to admit, I was just surprised that McClain was married to a woman, it still is a surprise to me sometimes," O'Shaughnessy said. "How amazing," she added, saying that at first, she thought that "Sally would just be amazed that there is at least one female astronaut who's married to a woman and it's OK at NASA."
Unfortunately, those blissful first reactions turned slightly sour when O'Shaughnessy realized that McClain had not come out publicly herself.
"Oh, darn," she said. O'Shaughnessy, who does not know McClain personally, said that she was disappointed that McClain wasn't publicly open about her identity. Up until the New York Times report, which detailed the accusations made by McClain's now-estranged wife, McClain was not out in official NASA communications, though a few LGBTQ+ media outlets had described her as a lesbian.
O'Shaughnessy said that it seemed to her that "Anne McClain is afraid of being who she really is because she's afraid that she won't get the exciting opportunities if people know that she's in a gay relationship."
Currently, according to a statement from NASA, emailed to Space.com by Katherine Brown, a NASA public affairs officer in the Office of Communications, the agency's policy on diversity and inclusion is as follows:
"NASA recognizes that diversity and inclusion are integral to mission success at NASA. Our commitment to these principles helps us to ensure fairness and equity in decision making. Diversity and inclusion also drives full engagement and the utilization of the talents, backgrounds, and capabilities of individuals and teams, allowing us to create and maintain a work environment where diverse ideas are highly valued and critical to effective technical solutions.
"In turn, individuals can reach their potential and maximize their contributions to our strategic goals. By fostering an atmosphere of inclusion and respect for all, we can continue to value and appreciate the strengths afforded by both the commonalities and differences between us, not only our inherent differences but also in the styles, ideas, and organizational contributions of each person."
Following Ride's death in 2012, after which her relationship to O'Shaugnessy was revealed in her obituary, Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, told Buzzfeed that, "The fact that Sally Ride was a lesbian will further help round out Americans' understanding of the contributions of LGBT Americans to our country."
But, almost a decade later, McClain is still the first and only active astronaut whose sexuality is public, and she did not reveal this information herself. When the Times published the report, it was not the first-ever public mention of her relationship with Worden. In addition to the mentions of her in LGBTQ+ media outlets, Business Insider and other news publications had mentioned that McClain and Worden were married. However, when the Times report broke, this information gained serious traction and became public knowledge.
"There's that fear that 'if I'm honest about who I am and tell others that I'm gay, then maybe I won't get promoted, maybe I won't get to fly in space, maybe I won't be able to walk on the moon' … I think that if there are other astronauts who are members of the LGBTQ community or aspiring men and women out there who are members of the community and who are applying to become an astronaut, you know my sense is they're gonna be worried about being open," O'Shaughnessy said.
Still, O'Shaughnessy said she believes that, while this specific situation might be personally difficult and complicated, having an astronaut who is publicly part of the LGBTQ+ community is amazing and could be vitally important. She said that, if handled properly, this could be an opportunity to further expand NASA's inclusivity.
Carefully handling a situation
"NASA needs to in my view be very, very thoughtful and careful with how they treat Anne McClain … they need to almost embrace the fact that she is now outed and embrace the fact that she was married to a woman, and maybe down the road will do so again and make sure that anybody in leadership positions and throughout NASA that they treat her fairly with regard to opportunities down the road," O'Shaughnessy said. "With great leadership, those things can happen."
"They [NASA] have an opportunity here to be courageous and push the envelope a little bit more in regards to inclusion and diversity in the ranks," she added.
Ride would probably feel the same way, O'Shaughnessy said.
"Sally was one of the fairest people I've ever met, and just the way she thought, she didn't want anybody made fun of, she wanted fairness in the world in every possible aspect. So I think she would be holding NASA to high expectations of being fair, doing the right thing and [saying] 'come on let's move forward.'"
O'Shaughnessy said she thought that this could also be a positive opportunity for McClain.
To McClain, she would say to "embrace it and bring all the courage that she clearly possesses and all of her drive and hard work, bring all of that forward to help her get through this and also kind of embrace it."
Even since the Times report broke in August, there has been some progress that may indicate that the times are, in fact, a changin'. In September, Shannon Gatta, a student at the University of Washington and a previous Brooke Owens Fellow, was named the winner of the "Out Astronaut" contest, which aims to increase representation in STEM fields and in space by helping an openly LGBTQ+ scientist to become an astronaut and fly in space. Gatta, who identifies as pansexual, has worked as a flight software engineer for NASA and a systems engineer for Ball Aerospace. She was also a member of the U.S. military and served in Afghanistan.
As the winner of the contest, Gatta received a grant to attend the Advanced PoSSUM Space Academy at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. PoSSUM (Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere) is a not-for-profit organization that facilitates upper atmospheric and space technology research. The organization trains scientists to become astronauts as part of its scientist-astronaut program.
It's possible that this contest and McClain's newly public identity might provide a platform for change and improved representation in STEM and in the astronaut corps. But it's not a given that McClain will be interested in filling that role. She has the option, however, to use this opportunity, she could "be a leader in a different area now if she wants to," O'Shaughnessy said.
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