Sipple was born in Detroit, Michigan. He served in the United States Marine Corps and saw action in Vietnam. Shrapnel wounds suffered in December 1968 caused him to finish out his tour of duty in a Philadelphia veterans hospital, from which he was released in March 1970. Sipple, who was closeted in his hometown of Detroit had met Harvey Milk back in New York and had participated in San Francisco's gay pride parades and gay rights demonstrations. Sipple was active in local causes, including the historic political campaigns of openly gay City Council candidate Milk. The two were friends and Sipple would also be later described as a "prominent figure" in the gay community who had worked in a gay bar and was active in the Imperial Court System.
He lived with a merchant seaman roommate, in a fourth-floor walk-up apartment located in San Francisco's Mission District. He later spent six months in San Francisco's VA hospital, and was frequently readmitted into the hospital in 1975, the year he saved Ford's life.
Sipple was part of a crowd of about 3,000 people who had gathered outside San Francisco's St. Francis Hotel to see President Ford on September 22, 1975. Ford, just emerging from the building, was vulnerable despite heavy security protection. Sipple noticed a woman next to him had drawn and leveled a .38-caliber pistol at Ford as he headed to his limousine. Reacting instinctively, Sipple lunged at the woman, Sara Jane Moore, just as her finger squeezed the trigger. While the gun did go off, Sipple's contact was enough to deflect her aim and cause the bullet to miss. The bullet ricocheted and hit John Ludwig, a 42-year-old taxi driver. Ludwig survived. The incident came just three weeks after Lynette Fromme's assassination attempt on Ford. Reporters hounded Sipple who at first didn't want his name used, nor his location known.
The police and the Secret Service immediately commended Sipple for his action at the scene, as did the media. The news media portrayed Sipple as a hero.
Though he was known to be gay among members of the gay community, and had even participated in Gay Pride events, Sipple's sexual orientation was a secret from his family. He asked the press to keep his sexuality off the record, making it clear that neither his mother nor his employer knew he was gay. The national spotlight was on him immediately, and Harvey Milk responded. While discussing whether the truth about Sipple's sexuality should be disclosed, Milk told a friend: "It's too good an opportunity. For once we can show that gays do heroic things, not just all that caca about molesting children and hanging out in bathrooms." Milk reportedly outed Sipple as a "gay hero" to San Francisco Chronicle's columnist Herb Caen in hopes to "break the stereotype of homosexuals" of being "timid, weak and unheroic figures". Several days later Caen wrote of Sipple as a gay man and a friend of Milk speculating Ford offered praise "quietly" because of Sipple's sexual orientation. Sipple was besieged by reporters, as was his family. His mother refused to speak to him. Gay liberation groups petitioned local media to give Sipple his due as a gay hero. Caen published the private side of the Marine's story, as did a handful of other publications. Sipple then insisted to reporters that his sexuality was to be kept confidential. Later, when Sipple hid in a friend's apartment to avoid them, the reporters turned to Milk, arguably the most visible voice for the gay community. The reporters had already labeled Sipple the "gay ex-Marine" and his conservative mother disparaged and disowned him when she found out about his sexuality. Milk's precise role in the outing remain somewhat cloudy as Sipple's active participation in the gay community suggests that his sexuality would have been revealed and reported even if doing so was seen as unethical. According to Harold Evans, "[T]here was no invitation to the White House for Sipple, not even a commendation. Milk made a fuss about that. Finally, weeks later, Sipple received a brief note of thanks."
Sipple sued the Chronicle for invasion of privacy. Of President Ford's letter of thanks to Sipple, Milk suggested that Sipple's sexual orientation was the reason he received only a note, rather than an invitation to the White House. Sipple filed a $15 million invasion of privacy suit against Caen, seven named newspapers, and a number of unnamed publishers, for publishing the disclosures. The Superior Court in San Francisco dismissed the suit, and Sipple continued his legal battle until May 1984, when a state court of appeals held that Sipple had indeed become news, and that his sexual orientation was part of the story.
According to a 2006 article in The Washington Post, Sipple went through a period of estrangement with his parents, but the family later reconciled with him. Sipple's brother, George, told the newspaper, "[Our parents] accepted it. That was all. They didn't like it, but they still accepted. He was welcomed. Only thing was: Don't bring a lot of your friends."
Sipple's mental and physical health sharply declined over the years. He drank heavily, gained weight to 300 lb (140 kg), was fitted with a pacemaker, and became paranoid and suicidal. The incident brought him so much attention that, later in life, while drinking, he would express regret towards grabbing Moore's gun. Sipple, who was wounded in the head in Vietnam, was also diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic according to the coroner's report. On February 2, 1989, he was found dead in his bed, at the age of forty-seven. Earlier that day, Sipple had visited a friend and said he had been turned away by the Veterans Administration hospital where he went concerning his difficulty in breathing due to pneumonia. Sipple's funeral was attended by about 30 people. President Ford and his wife sent a letter of sympathy to his family and friends. He was buried in Golden Gate National Cemetery south of San Francisco.
His $334 per month apartment near San Francisco's Tenderloin District was found with many newspaper clippings of his actions on the fateful September afternoon in 1975. His most prized possession was the framed letter from the White House. A letter addressed to the friends of Oliver Sipple was on display for a short period after his death at one of his favorite hangouts, the New Belle Saloon:
"Mrs. Ford and I express our deepest sympathy in this time of sorrow involving your friend's passing..."In a 2001 interview with columnist Deb Price, Ford disputed the claim that Sipple was treated differently because of his sexual orientation, saying, "As far as I was concerned, I had done the right thing and the matter was ended. I didn't learn until sometime later — I can't remember when — he was gay. I don't know where anyone got the crazy idea I was prejudiced and wanted to exclude gays."
President Gerald Ford, February, 1989
According to Castañeda and Campbell:
The Sipple incident has been referred to, in passing, in a major motion picture and in a prime-time television program. Several law review articles and more than a dozen books and commentary pieces have also mentioned the perplexing ethical dimensions of the case.Sipple was used as an example in several articles involving anonymity and public identity reveals, and used his story as an example as such revelations can have a negative and positive effects.
Forsaken Hero by David C. Long
Paperback: 132 pages
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (March 30, 2012)
Amazon: Forsaken Hero
“Forsaken Hero” is based upon the true story of Oliver “Billy” Sipple, a San Francisco man who is thrust into the national limelight for saving President Gerald Ford from assassination, only to become an outcast to his family and community when the press exposes his homosexuality. Despite his heroic act, Oliver becomes the target of hatred and discrimination, which ultimately drives him to self-destruction.
More LGBT History at my website: www.elisarolle.com/, My Ramblings/Gay Classics
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