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Volume 35
Issue 03
 
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Past Out by Liz Highleyman
Who was Oliver Sipple?
by Liz Highleyman - SGN Contributing Writer

Oliver Sipple is credited with saving the life of President Gerald Ford in 1975, but the outing that followed his heroic act wreaked havoc on his personal life.

Sipple, known by the nickname "Billy," was born in Detroit in November 1941. In high school, he was a star football player. During the mid-1960s, after moving to New York City, Sipple hung out with a circle of Gay men who frequented Kelly's, a hustler bar. He began a relationship with Joe Campbell (later immortalized as the "Sugar Plum Fairy" in Lou Reed's song "Walk on the Wild Side"), who previously had been a lover of Harvey Milk. The couple moved to Fort Lauderdale, but Sipple soon left Campbell, prompting Campbell to attempt suicide.

During the Vietnam War, Sipple joined the Marine Corps as a private first-class. He was wounded twice, and completed his tour of duty in a Philadelphia veterans' hospital. He received an honorable discharge in 1970 and moved to San Francisco, where he lived on a veteran's pension due to physical and psychological disability. He had numerous friends among the city's burgeoning Gay community, and he worked on Milk's campaign for a seat on the Board of Supervisors.

On the afternoon of Sept. 22, 1975, Sipple was taking a walk when he joined a crowd gathered outside the St. Francis Hotel in Union Square to greet President Ford - who just weeks earlier had survived an assassination attempt by Charles Manson follower Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme.

As Ford exited the hotel, Sipple noticed that the gray-haired woman standing beside him - later identified as Sara Jane Moore - had pulled a revolver out of her raincoat. Sipple grabbed Moore's arm, causing her shot to miss the president by a few feet, then wrestled her to the ground to prevent her from firing again; Moore was captured, pleaded guilty, and is serving a life sentence in prison.

When questioned by police and Secret Service agents, Sipple asked them not to release his name. Nevertheless, reporters got wind of him, and he was hailed as a hero. According to journalist Randy Shilts, Milk told _San Francisco Chronicle_ gossip columnist Herb Caen that Sipple was Gay. "That guy saved the president's life," Milk reportedly said. "It shows that we do good things, not just all that ca-ca about molesting children and hanging out in bathrooms."

Caen noted in a column that Sipple was Gay, and the news was picked up by several other papers across the country - including the _Chicago Sun-Times_, which called Sipple a "Homosexual Hero." But Sipple was not interested in being a "Gay hero." "My sexual orientation has nothing to do with saving the president's life," he said, "just as the color of my eyes or my race has nothing to do with what happened in front of the St. Francis Hotel."

The outing devastated Sipple, who had not revealed his sexuality to his conservative family back in Michigan. "My mother told me today she can't walk out of her front door, or even go to church, because of the pressures she feels because of the press stories concerning my sexual orientation," Sipple lamented to reporters. His brother George later recalled that he, his father, and another brother, all of whom worked for General Motors, were taunted on the factory floor. Sipple's parents cut off contact with him, although George said that they did not disown him and eventually reconciled. Sipple filed a $15 million lawsuit against the _Chronicle_, the _Sun-Times_, and five other newspapers for invasion of privacy. A San Francisco Superior Court judge dismissed the case on First Amendment grounds, and a state appeals court upheld the decision in May 1984.

Although Sipple received a letter expressing Ford's "heartfelt appreciation," he was never invited to the White House to accept more formal recognition. Milk and some other activists attributed this slight to Sipple's sexuality, but Ford later told a reporter that he thought he had "done the right thing," and that he hadn't learned until sometime later that Sipple was Gay.

In the years that followed, Sipple grew increasingly bitter and descended into alcoholism. "There were a lot of times he wished he had never saved the president's life, for all the anguish it caused him," his brother recalled. "He said life would have been so much simpler if he hadn't have done it."

Though in ill health, Sipple was a regular denizen at several Gay watering holes on Polk Street. On Feb. 2, 1989, after Sipple had failed to appear for several days, a friend found him dead in his Tenderloin apartment, the walls plastered with press clippings from the 1975 incident. Ford sent a letter of condolence to the patrons of the New Bell Saloon - acknowledging them as Sipple's chosen family - stating that he "strongly regretted the problems that developed" for Sipple after the assassination attempt.

The tragic end to Sipple's life contributed to a debate within the LGBT community over identity politics and outing that persists to this day. In addition, his story is widely used in law and journalism schools as a case study in the ethics of revealing a person's sexual orientation against his or her will.

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication or at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.
 

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