Are there no queer astronauts?

Friends, we are living in a beautiful time. A time when it seems entirely probable that humans will be flying to Mars and doing things there, and we’re already gearing up with simulated Mars colonies on Earth to see if humans can stand each other in close confinement for that long, extensive astronaut training, exploratory missions, and all kinds of amazing things. It’s not beyond the realm of probability that Martian exploration will be a great step for women, actually, as a team of female astronauts is teed up to take our first steps on the red planet.

But there’s one thing about conversations surrounding long-term space missions that’s really annoying me, and that’s some assumptions about gender and sexuality. These issues actually come up in a lot of essays and commentaries, and understandably. Humans in close quarters tend to develop tensions amongst each other, some of which result in relationships, which can create further tensions — what happens when monogamous people get into conflicts with each other over the same partner, or someone rejects someone else, or people break up, or any number of other things? Others result in a flowering of sexism and harassment, which also isn’t good. As a general rule, you don’t actually want your astronauts hooking up — unless you’re talking about a generation ship, in which case a whole new set of rules comes into play.

By and large, though, we’re not talking about generation ships. Right now in the immediate world we’re focusing on how to handle mixed gender medium-range missions and temporary stations on planets like Mars. If people are away from home for months or years all packed up together in tin cans or tiny habitat domes, how do we deal with sexuality? The simple answer is that we tell them to knock it off, but of course it’s not that simple, and this is a big part of the research being done on the ground to explore the issues surrounding astronauts, gender, and sexuality. One commonly proposed solution to the issue is gender segregation, which bothers me for two reasons.

  1. People generally think of men and women where they refer to gender segregation, specifically meaning cis men and women. Nonbinary astronauts aren’t really accounted for in this metric, and one shudders to think of what NASA would do with trans astronauts. This is a nontrivial question, as NASA draws heavily on ex-military and the military is opening up to trans servicemembers, which that binary trans people are going to be applying into NASA astronaut training. Is NASA going to respect their gender, or do something awful like putting trans women in with cis men? This assumes that genitalia=sex=gender, which we should all know at this point isn’t the case.
  2. Allow me to introduce you to a woman named Sally Ride. Born in 1951, she was a pioneer for women in STEM and an incredibly accomplished astronaut. She was the first woman from the US to go to space, and remains the youngest, so don’t think that NASA was cutting her a break because she was a woman. She knew her stuff. And while she was very private about her personal life, as is her right, it turns out that Ride’s partner at the time of her death was a woman. We don’t know precisely how Ride identified, though people who were close to her might, because she was outed posthumously (hopefully with her consent), but it appears that Ride was bisexual, lesbian, queer, or something else along the spectrum of queerness.

In other words: Where are all the queer astronauts in this metric? People insist that men and women need to be separated because they can’t keep their hands off each other, and often LGBQ people are excluded from shared gendered spaces on the grounds that they’ll ogle people or commit sexual assault, but in this case, they’re just erased. I don’t see any indicators or nods to the fact that some of the women, for example, might be gay. They’re also astronauts with a professional mission, which means they’re probably more interested in science than sex, just like their heterosexual compatriots, but still, it’s entirely possible that two gay women could go to Mars together (the sentence that launched a thousand ships).

I don’t think that astronauts should be segregated by gender or sexual orientation, because it suggests that grown-ass people can’t get it together enough to behave like professionals, and also because it’s an impossibly fine-grained metric. If I was an astronaut, where would you put me? With the women? Wrong. With the men? Wrong. Out in the airlock, I guess? Ride spent her entire career in the closet, for a variety of reasons including a probable desire for privacy, but also likely because she knew she would be discriminated against. It certainly seems unlikely that NASA would have sent her on missions if they’d known, in case she got gay all over the equipment or something.

Today, astronauts of multiple genders, and statistically speaking multiple sexual orientations, work or have worked in the International Space Station. Now perhaps they’re up to all sorts of hijinks overhead while we sleep, but I doubt it. When you work in an environment where very precise attention to detail, in-depth knowledge of science, and focus are required, you really don’t have time to play footsie under the table.

So why not admit that there are, or will be, queer and trans astronauts out there who deserve their moonshots too?

Image: Sally Ride, Jeff Stvan, Flickr