On Facebook Tuesday, Joyce Ladner, a former interim president of Howard University, posted a notice about the death of actor Sherman Hemsley of television’s “The Jeffersons” and praised him as “out and proud.” Friends approved with a “like.” No point in being in the closet one’s whole life, wrote Ladner.
The blog post the retired administrator referenced never offered evidence that Hemsley was gay, although it said, “[Hemsley], who never married, was reportedly an out and proud gay man. He had no children.” It did not identify the source of the “reportedly.”
Hemsley, who was 74, died in his El Paso, Texas, home the day after Sally Ride, the first American woman to go into space, succumbed after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. Ride waited until her death to announce that she was gay. Ride’s 1982 marriage to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley ended in divorce five years later.
David Crary wrote Wednesday for the Associated Press, “As details trickled out after Ride’s death on Monday, it became clear that a circle of family, friends and co-workers had long known of the same-sex relationship and embraced it. For many millions of others, who admired Ride as the first American woman in space, it was a revelation — and it sparked a spirited discussion about privacy vs. public candor in regard to sexual orientation.”
The initial reports were low-key. “Most obituaries, including those in The New York Times and The Washington Post, placed the revelation in the traditional place for survivors — the penultimate paragraph,” Kelly McBride wrote Tuesday for the Poynter Institute.
Still, the two deaths raise questions about the relevancy of sexual orientation in an obituary and the criteria for including it. The questions are raised in an era in which the distinction among “citizen journalists,” social media and traditional news outlets is blurring.
Ride’s family disclosed her orientation in a statement announcing her death, acknowledging her partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy.
There was no such verification with Hemsley. However, the Advocate, a gay magazine, printed rumor. “While there was no official confirmation during his lifetime, there was frequent speculation that Hemsley was a gay man,” Jeremy Kinser wrote. “A 2007 VH1 story that listed three favorite allegedly gay black actors from the past put Hemsley in the top spot. The story also references a frequent but unsubstantiated rumor that Hemsley’s sexual orientation led to problems on the set with Jeffersons costar [Isabel] Sanford.”