Golden Gate National Cemetery San Bruno, San Mateo County, California, USA, Plot T, 2268
Oliver Wellington "Billy" Sipple (November 20, 1941 – February 2, 1989) was a decorated U.S. Marine and Vietnam War veteran. On September 22, 1975, he grappled with Sara Jane Moore as she fired a pistol at U.S. President Gerald Ford in San Francisco, causing her to miss. The subsequent public revelation that Sipple was gay turned the news story into a cause célèbre for LGBT rights activists, leading Sipple to unsuccessfully sue several publishers for invasion of privacy.
Oliver Wellington Sipple was born in Detroit, Michigan. He served in the United States Marine Corps and fought 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 in New York City 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 Board of Supervisors 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 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. Standing beside Sipple in the crowd, was Sara Jane Moore. She was about 40 feet (12 m) away from President Ford when she fired a single shot at him with a revolver, narrowly missing the President. After realizing she had missed, she raised her arm again, and Sipple dived towards her; he grabbed her arm, possibly saving President Ford's life. Sipple said at the time, "I saw [her gun] pointed out there and I grabbed for it. [...] I lunged and grabbed the woman's arm and the gun went off." The bullet ricocheted and hit John Ludwig, a 42-year-old taxi driver; he survived. The incident came just three weeks after Lynette Fromme's assassination attempt on Ford. Reporters hounded Sipple who at first did not 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 national news media portrayed Sipple as a hero, and noted his status as a former Marine.
Though he was known to be homosexual among members of the San Francisco 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 such personal information off the record, making it clear that neither his mother nor his employer knew he was gay.
The day after the incident, two answering machine messages outed Sipple to San Francisco Chronicle's columnist Herb Caen. One was from Reverend Ray Broshears, the head of a gay activist group called the Lavender Panthers. The other message was from local gay activist Harvey Milk, a friend of Sipple and on whose campaign for city council Sipple had worked. 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 outed Sipple in order to portray him as a "gay hero" and so to "break the stereotype of homosexuals" being "timid, weak and unheroic figures". 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."
Two days after the thwarted assassination attempt, unable to reach Sipple, Caen wrote of Sipple as a gay man, and of 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. Reporters labeled Sipple the "gay ex-Marine", and his mother disparaged and disowned him. 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. 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 sued the Chronicle, filing 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." However other sources indicate that Sipple's parents never fully accepted him. His mother, just after news broke of Sipple's sexual orientation, hung up on Sipple saying she never wished to speak to him again. His father is said to have told Sipple's brother to "forget [he had] a brother." Finally, when his mother died, his father did not allow him to attend her funeral.
Sipple's mental and physical health sharply declined over the years. He drank heavily, was diagnosed with schizophrenia, fitted with a pacemaker, and gained weight. The incident brought him so much attention that, later in life, while drinking, he would express regret about grabbing Moore's gun. On February 2, 1989, an acquaintance, Wayne Friday, found Sipple dead in his San Francisco apartment, with a bottle of Jack Daniel's next to him and the television still on. The San Francisco coroner estimated Sipple had been dead for approximately 10 days. He was 47 years old. 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, including a 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 the New Belle Saloon:
Mrs. Ford and I express our deepest sympathy in this time of sorrow involving your friend's passing...
–Former President Gerald Ford, February, 1989
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.
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.
A September 2017 episode of the radio program Radiolab covered Sipple's act of foiling the assassination of then President Ford. The episode goes into Sipple's act of heroism, his outing by Harvey Milk and Herb Caen and the news media, and the ethics of his outing in spite of his opposition.
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