Oliver Sipple was a decorated US Marine and Vietnam War veteran who saved the life of President Gerald Ford during an assassination attempt in San Francisco on September 22, 1975. Despite his expressed wish to have his sexual orientation kept private, Sipple was outed (public revelation of a person’s homosexuality without that person’s permission) by Harvey Milk in order to exploit Sipple as a legitimate Gay American hero. The case of Sipple has been used to argue the immorality of outing, and to question the ethics of journalism in dealing with people’s private lives.
Sipple, known to his friends as “Billy,” was born in Detroit, Michigan on November 20, 1941. He served in Vietnam as a member of the United States Marine Corps, and suffered wounds in 1968 that caused him to finish out his tour of duty in Veterans Health Administration hospitals. Listed as disabled on psychological grounds, Sipple was unable to hold a job. He lived in San Francisco’s Mission District and was active in local causes, including political campaigns for Gay activist Harvey Milk. Though he was known to be Gay by friends and fellow members of the San Francisco Gay community, Sipple had not publicly come out, and chose not to reveal his sexual orientation to his family.
Saving President Ford
On September 22, 1975, Sipple joined some three thousand people outside the Saint Francis Hotel in San Francisco to see President Ford. He did so because Ford stood up for veterans, Sipple recounted later. He noticed that a woman next to him, Sara Jane Moore, had pulled and aimed a .38-calibre pistol at Ford as the President left the building and headed for his limousine. Sipple deflected her aim and the bullet missed the President. The police, Secret Service, and President Ford commended Sipple for his action at the scene. Although he asked not to be mentioned in the press, the news media portrayed him as a hero without mentioning his sexual orientation.
Outed by Harvey Milk
Despite Sipple’s wishes, Harvey Milk publicly proclaimed him a Gay hero. “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,” said Milk, and that outing Sipple would “help break the stereotype of homosexuals.” Columnist Herb Caen published the private side of the inactive Marine’s story in the San Francisco Chronicle, and other major media outlets picked up the story. Gay activists seized the opportunity to criticize the White House for not treating Sipple with the same respect accorded a Straight hero.
Sipple’s mother was a conservative Baptist who lived outside of Detroit. Upon discovering her son’s secret when it was broadcasted across the nation, she reacted to the knowledge of her son’s sexual orientation by cutting off contact with him. Sipple filed a $15 million invasion of privacy suit against Caen and others involved in his outing by the media, alleging that they had caused him mental anguish and humiliation. He lost the lawsuit and all appeals, in part because he was known in the Gay community, had participated in Gay Pride parades, and was considered a friend of openly Gay Harvey Milk. Although he reconciled somewhat with members of his family following his mother’s death, Sipple’s orientation appeared to have been a source of discomfort for them, his time on the battlefield and bravery at the Saint Francis Hotel notwithstanding.
Physical Decline and Death
Sipple’s mental and physical health worsened after the shooting incident. He drank heavily, gained weight, was fitted with a pacemaker, and became paranoid and suicidal. On February 2, 1989, he was found dead in his bed at the age of 47. In his apartment, friends found newspaper clippings of his actions on the September afternoon in 1975, including his most prized possession – a framed letter from the White House signed by President Harold Ford. It read:
I want you to know how much I appreciated your selfless actions last Monday. The events were a shock to us all, but you acted quickly and without fear for your own safety. By doing so, you helped to avert danger to me and to others in the crowd. You have my heartfelt appreciation.
For his part, Ford supported rights for Lesbians and Gay men. In October 2001, he stated publicly that they “ought to be treated equally. Period.” It is not known whether Sipple’s action saving Ford’s life had anything to do with Ford’s pro-Gay stance.
Approximately thirty people attended Sipple’s funeral, and he was buried in Golden Gate National Cemetery. Upon hearing of Sipple’s death, Ford wrote and hand-signed a letter to Sipple’s friends: “Mrs. Ford and I express our deepest sympathy in this time of sorrow involving your friend’s passing.” The letter was displayed in Sipple’s favorite bar.
Sipple’s outing by the Chronicle remains a controversial subject in journalism ethics and is often cited by those who are opposed to the practice of outing as an example of how destructive exposing someone’s personal life can be.
Castañeda, Laura and Shannon B. Campbell. News and Sexuality: Media Portraits of Diversity. London: Sage, 2006.
Johansson, Warren and William A Percy. Outing: Shattering the Conspiracy of Silence. New York: Haworth, 1994.
Siegel, Paul. Communication Law in America. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008.