#PRIDE: The Ride Sisters, Sally and Bear | Presbyterian Historical Society

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#PRIDE: The Ride Sisters, Sally and Bear

June 21, 2023
Sally Ride (left), Bear Ride (right). Images from a Dec. 17, 2012 article published on NASA Jet Propulsion Lab's webpage, titled "NASA's GRAIL Lunar Impact Site Named for Astronaut Sally Ride."

Most of us recognize the name Sally Ride (1951-2012). Her legacy precedes her: in 1983, as a member of the Challenger’s crew, Ride became the first American woman to go into space. But there are two other things about Sally that are both striking and memorable—she was raised in a Presbyterian family, and she was gay.

Ride was born in Encino, California, in late May 1951. As a young adult, she attended Stanford University, where she earned two degrees: a bachelor’s in physics, and another in English. After graduating in the class of ’73, Ride continued her academic career by adding a master’s in science and a doctorate in astrophysics to her resume, in 1975 and 1978, respectively.

Immediately after becoming a Doctor of Physics, Ride sent in an application to NASA. Ride was one of six female astronauts selected to begin spaceflight training that year, NASA’s first cohort of future women astronauts. At thirty-two, Ride experienced her first spaceflight aboard the Challenger shuttle. She would return to space once more the following year, in 1984, before serving on the accident investigation board set up in response to the 1986 Challenger tragedy.

Sally Ride, America's first woman astronaut communicates with ground controllers from the flight deck. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Ride left NASA in 1987, though her passion for both science and space continued to grow and influence her post-NASA life. She served as a college professor, co-wrote five science-related children’s books, and co-founded Sally Ride Science, an educational organization that works to get children and young adults into STEM careers. Sally founded the company in 2001 with her partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy, and three other colleagues.

During her brief marriage to fellow astronaut Steven Hawley, which lasted from 1982 to 1987, Sally reconnected with a childhood friend, Tam O’Shaughnessy. The two had known each other as preteens, when they were tennis teammates. Tam was reintroduced to Sally’s life in 1985, and the two were involved in a romantic relationship from the time of Sally’s divorce until her death, 27 years later, in 2012. She passed after a 17-month-long battle with pancreatic cancer.

Sally was not only a prolific scientist, an astronaut, and gay—she was also an older sister. Her younger sister Bear was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1978, the same year Sally was selected by NASA to enter spaceflight training. Woman had been granted ordination rights only twenty years before; the Rev. Margaret Towner was ordained as the first woman minister in the PCUSA in 1956, and the Rev. Rachel Henderlite was the first in the PCUS in 1965. Bear served as pastor of Claremont Presbyterian Church, CA, for about a decade, from the early 1980s until 1990.

Sally (left) with Bear (right), 1978. Bear became a minister months after Sally was accepted by NASA. Image courtesy of the Academy of Achievement.

The girls’ parents, Joyce and Dale Ride, were both Presbyterian elders. Sally and Bear were born in Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital and grew up in Encino, CA. The family belonged to First Presbyterian Church, Encino, and grew up attending services and becoming familiar with the denomination. Joyce, the girls' mother, was a Sunday School teacher. When word got around that she had taught her 3rd grade Sunday School class the song We Shall Overcome in 1965, Joyce was reprimanded by the Session.

While Bear went on to pursue a career within the church by becoming a reverend, Sally never really spoke publicly about her faith. She was a very private, guarded person—even her cancer diagnosis was only made known to those closest to her. Just as her diagnosis was not truly revealed until her passing, Sally’s relationship and sexual orientation was only made public when her obituary was published, stating that she was survived by “Tam O’Shaughnessy, her partner of 27 years.”

When approached about her sister’s passing—and the news of her relationship—Bear told Buzzfeed News that Tam was considered family. Though the relationship had not been publicized previously, this did not necessitate that Sally was ashamed or was hoping to hide it—rather, Bear claims that she “never hid her relationship with Tam…Sally’s close friends, of course, knew.”

This is where we want to turn your attention to the younger Ride sibling. Bear has created a legacy of her own as a lesbian Presbyterian minister. The 1970s was a decade of strife when it came to discussions of homosexuality in the church. In 1970, the General Assembly of the UPCUSA maintained that homosexuality is a “sin”; two years later, the PCUS rejected the first resolution on homosexuality at their General Assembly meeting. The Rev. David Bailey Sindt stood up on the UPCUSA General Assembly floor in 1974 with a sign that read, “Is anyone else out there gay?” This was just four years before Bear Ride became an ordained minister. Reports were conducted, studies held, discussions had, and the fight for ordination rights for LGBTQIA+ Presbyterians was happening in real time.

In 1987, the General Assembly of the PC(USA) voted to uphold the ban on ordaining homosexuals but established a Special Committee on Human Sexuality to study the issue. The committee spent three years studying all aspects of human sexuality and recommended that justice and love be used to evaluate all relationships, including heterosexual marriages. In 1991, the Human Sexuality Committee's final report, which advocated for the ordination rights of gay and lesbian Presbyterians, was hotly debated, and ultimately rejected by the General Assembly. LGBTQIA+ Presbyterians and allies responded to this decision with a silent demonstration on the assembly floor—at the time it was the largest protest in the movement for the inclusion of LGBTQIA+ people in the denomination.

It wasn’t until 2011, after over 40 years of debate, that the church finally allowed the ordination of LGBTQIA+ Presbyterians.

So, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the two Ride sisters were making names for themselves—though in different ways. Sally was becoming the first American woman to venture to space, and Bear was joining the fight within the Presbyterian church for ordination and marriage rights for the gay community. Where Sally was quiet and private, Bear was participatory and vocal. She was active in protests and marches, including the Soulfource demonstration at the 212th General Assembly in 2000, when she and Rev. Dr. Janie Spahr, Elder Virginia Davidson, and Bill Thompson, along with 78 others, were arrested. She stood strong at her pulpit at the Claremont Presbyterian Church, preaching harmony and equality. She has also served as co-moderator of More Light Presbyterians, a non-profit organization focused on the fight for ordination and marriage rights for LGBTQIA+ congregants.

Soulforce demonstration at the 212th General Assembly in Long Beach, CA on June 26, 2002. Bear Ride participated in this protest, and was arrested. Pearl ID: [islandora:145477]

Bear and her partner of twelve years, Susan Craig—who is also an ordained Presbyterian minister—were married in late June of 2008 at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, CA. Bear said that, “At this point it would be a chargeable offense for a Presbyterian minister to officiate at our wedding, a legal wedding, because in the church—the church’s constitution—a marriage is a civil contract.”

She goes on to say, “There is a great deal of debate, naturally, within the Presbyterian Church and other denominations about the status of marriage…I believe that God created us in God’s own image, and that God created us to be in a relationship, and I don’t think that language is prescriptive of who.” Bear continued, “But, rather, God has created us with love and for love to be with another, to be cherished.”

This PRIDE Month, we are thankful for the Ride sisters—both of whom are inspirations. From them, we learn to hold tight to our passions, our faith, and, ultimately, to ourselves.

Related Resources in Pearl

Bear Ride oral history, 1986, side 1 and side 2: Bear Ride is a Presbyterian minister, raised in First Presbyterian Church (Santa Monica, Calif.), and ordained in 1978 by the Presbytery of the Pacific. She's the younger sister of Dr. Sally Ride. Interview recorded in Anaheim, California, May 13, 1986, by Alice Brasfield. Ride at the time went by Bear Ride Scott.

Other images from the Soulforce demonstration in 2000.

The Pam Byers Memorial Collection.