WASHINGTON — For Tam O’Shaughnessy and Walter Naegle, Wednesday was a day to honor the legacies of their deceased partners — astronaut Sally Ride and civil rights leader Bayard Rustin.
O’Shaughnessy, Ride’s partner, and Naegle, Rustin’s partner, sat on stage at the White House alongside Oprah Winfrey, President Bill Clinton, Gloria Steinem and others, as President Obama presented them with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a ceremony on Wednesday morning. O’Shaughnessy and Naegle are the first people to accept the award on behalf of deceased same-sex partners.
“I’m honored to represent Sally, and just honored to be here, and I also think having Walter and me on stage for our partners sends a huge message to the world, so I think — that feels good,” O’Shaughnessy said after the ceremony in the East Room of the White House.
“I’m so happy that we live in a country where I could sit on the stage and represent Sally, and that the Obamas welcome that. That is, it’s just amazing and it brings tears to my eyes. I tried not to [on stage],” O’Shaughnessy said. “Sally and I were able to live wonderful lives because of the people who fought for gay and lesbian rights all these years.”
Rustin was one of those people, helping organize the 1963 March on Washington — for which he often was denied recognition because he was gay — and later working to advance gay rights. Although Rustin died in 1987, Naegle was at the White House Wednesday to accept Rustin’s award.
“It’s certainly a very emotional day, a tremendous honor,” Naegle said. “It’s the highest honor that somebody can get, and to have Bayard at that level affirms all of the values that he was committed to, making America better for everybody, not just the select few.”
Naegle has long made ensuring that Rustin receives his proper place in history a big part of his life’s work since Rustin died. Today, though, Naegle said that he had a message for Obama to be taken from his partner’s legacy.
“I said this to the president: Bayard took a lot of hits in his life, but he always got back up and went back into the fight,” Naegle said. “And I said — the president’s getting a lot of hits now, and he really needs to keep fighting for all Americans. The real legacy, or lesson, to be learned from Bayard is: You don’t give up just because you get knocked down a couple of times. You get back up and get back in the ring. And that’s what [Rustin] did, he was doing that his whole life.”
Accepting the Presidential Medal of Freedom was a moment that Naegle put in the context of his work, saying, “This particular day, it wasn’t really sure that this would ever happen. It’s kind of the icing on the cake, but our motivation was really to get him into the history books, to get people to know who he was, and really to work to perpetuate the values that he stood for and to carry on the work, because the work is not finished,” he said. “It lifts him up — in history.”
Ride, in contrast, had long had a place in history, as the first American female astronaut — but it was not known publicly that she was a lesbian until after her death.
O’Shaughnessy was named as Ride’s partner in the death notice published on the website of the company they founded, Sally Ride Science. That statement, following Ride’s death on July 23, 2012, was first the couple made about their relationship.
“The way it came out in her obituary was, Sally and I talked about, I wanted to do a celebration of her life, and I realized, ‘Who am I to the world?’” O’Shaughnessy said after the ceremony Wednesday. “We were very open with our family and friends, and then very private — very private — with everybody else, not open.”
“Then, a week before Sally died, she said, ‘Tam, I want you to decide how you want to deal with things,’” she continued, “and I decided that Sally was a very honest person and this was the only area of her life that was — it wasn’t dishonest, but she wasn’t completely honest with the world about who she was in that area and neither was I.”
“I wrote the so-called obituary, and stated that I was Sally’s partner,” she said of her decision. “I wanted to live honestly and openly, and I thought it was the right thing for her legacy and her integrity. And, I also realized it might be a big story.”
And it was. As O’Shaughnessy said Wednesday, “Just the fact that we said it on our website, and then that got carried around the world and now people know that Sally was a gay human being, had a committed relationship with another woman, and, by and large, people don’t care. What people care about is that she was the first American female astronaut, and did it with such grace.” It’s Ride’s work for science education, her job as a physics professor, and her work on President Clinton’s transition team and with NASA that people care about, O’Shaughnessy said.
“I wish Sally was around because, since she passed away about 14 months ago, our country has changed in very big ways,” she said of recent successes on LGBT rights issues. “For me, personally, I just feel like I can breathe better, look people in the eye a little straighter. It just feels good to be honest and who you are, and I think that would have been wonderful for Sally, too. Sally always was herself, but, you know, not being completely out there with who you are affects some part of you affects some part of you in some way, and I just think it would have been very wonderful for her, too.”
Talking about her visit to the Human Rights Campaign on Tuesday, she said she hopes to do more work with the group in the future. “I just feel it’s important to do my share,” she said.
Because the recipients were seated in alphabetical order by the recipient’s name, O’Shaughnessy and Naegle were seated together Wednesday.
“Before the ceremony, we had a chance to meet everybody, meet each other,” O’Shaughnessy said of meeting and then sitting with Naegle, “so it just made it sort of, very cozy on stage, and just very supportive.”
For Naegle, he said sitting on stage with O’Shaughnessy was “cool,” adding, “It’s a very good sign that we’re moving forward.”