The Oliver Sipple Case

Oliver Sipple (leftmost) lunges for the assailant

On September 25th 1975, Oliver Sipple was walking past the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco where the then President Gerald Ford was scheduled to speak. As he moved forward to get a better look at the speech, he noticed the woman standing next to him reach into her raincoat and pull out a revolver. Instinctively, Sipple grabbed for her arm and deflected it as she pulled the trigger. The bullet, intended for the president, ricocheted off the wall and wounded another man in the crowd. Sipple, a decorated Vietnam vet, tackled the assailant , prevented her from shooting again and handed her over to the Secret Service.

Oliver Sipple was immediately hailed in the national press, and received thousands of letters. However, President Ford only sent him a short note, and avoided a personal meeting. News organizations wondered why the White House was avoiding Sipple; although he was openly gay, Sipple’s sexual orientation was a secret from his family and employers; he asked the press to keep his sexuality off the record. However, news organizations refused to comply. The gay community thought it was a great opportunity too; while discussing whether  Sipple’s sexuality be disclosed, Harvey Milk noted: “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 further suggested that Sipple’s sexual orientation was the reason he received only a note, rather than an invitation to the White House — something newspapers took and ran with.

Herb Caen, a columnist at The San Francisco Chronicle, finally ‘outed’ Sipple as gay. The Chicago Sun-Times called him a ‘Homosexual Hero’; The Denver Post was more pithy: ‘Gay Vet’. Back in Detroit, Sipple’s staunch Baptist family became the subject of ridicule and abuse by friends and neighbors. His mother refused to talk to him and when she died in 1979, his father told him not to come to the funeral. Sipple filed a $15 million invasion of privacy suit against seven newspapers, and various publishers, but after a long and bitter process, the courts held that Sipple himself had become news, and that his sexual orientation was part of the story.  Oliver Sipple sank into a downward spiral of depression, alcoholism, obesity and drug abuse. By the time he was found dead with an empty bottle of bourbon in 1989, Oliver Sipple was already a forgotten footnote to ethics and freedom of press. His apartment was littered with press clippings from that fateful day, when he saved a man’s life and subsequently ruined his own.

(Opinions follow: This post is partially inspired by my misgivings towards DADT policy in the US. It was initially enacted without much tangible information,  and nearly two decades on, seems a little dated. Over twenty countries allow gays to serve openly in their armed forces, and most of these countries are members of the coalition forces fighting together with Americans. In the British Army — which itself was largely homophobic until recently when it was forced to accommodate gays by the European Union — there had been no incidents of bullying, harassment, blackmail or erosion of unit cohesion or effectiveness because of allowing gays to serve openly. And on a personal level, I believe it is unhealthy and unproductive to keep secrets from one another in the military where camaraderie and trust are the most important values.)

18 thoughts on “The Oliver Sipple Case

  1. As a photographer, I’m disappointed that no photo credit was given to the person that took this amazing
    image. Ironically, I had never seen it before. Oliver was a Hero, and like many families of that era… were ashamed of children who were gay. That issue showed up often, when AIDS hit the gay community in the early 1980s. Many families, disowned their sons, and only showed up to battle for estates left to lovers. Like the Charles Dickens Opening of “A Tale of TWO Cities”… it was the best of times, and the worst of times. Thankfully, now in the 21st Century… more families support members of the GLTB community, and in some schools… they have Gay/ Straight Alliances. Thanks for informing those who were not aware of Oliver and his heroic actions.

  2. Oliver was a true hero, but that doesn’t mean that those who outed him should share in the glory. The outers were incredibly insensitive and selfish, thinking of themselves first, and ignoring the effect that their self-centered behavior would have on Oliver’s life. The outers were incredibly evil people, and we’re still struggling to this day to deal with this kind of wicked thinking.

  3. Great pictures and great blog. I look forward to each post.

    According to a recent article, Oliver had made peace with his family. Even if he wasn’t invited to his mom’s funeral, which I would think unlikely, your post seems to imply his downward spiral was due to the alienation from his family and the outing of his sexuality. There were many other factors involved such as his diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia and PTSD.

  4. Regarding your DADT opinion, since you aren’t an American maybe you are not aware that serving in the armed forces is a privilege and not a right. Also, if memory serves, you have never served in the military so your belief as to what is unhealthy and unproductive is moot. I know that some of those “over twenty countries” you site are not an all voluntary force as the U.S. is. Shouldn’t greater weight be given to the wishes of those who are willing to die so others may live? But you don’t like their answer to the point of slandering the British Army as “largely homophobic” despite the evidence you site of “no incidents” proving you wrong. How convenient (and self-serving) of you in your line of work to chalk it up to the nanny state legislating behaviour. And my, how resigned you are that the UK is no longer sovereign and takes its orders from the EU. When one considers just how limited these other nations military capabilities are and the grand failures of peace keeping missions, I wonder how anyone can value the “wisdom” of the EU, UN, NATO, etc. over the U.S. military man or woman. God save the Queen.

    • Well as someone who did serve in the American armed forces I’m not so sure that I saw it as a privlage while I was in it. On the other had it was a few decades ago so perhaps at that time it wasn’t really all that much of a privlage as many a fine young man ran to Canada rather than serve.

      So can I then say that the DADT policy is complete and utter BS, and certainly Americans should be able to look to other countries to see how they’ve handled their integrated forces (under your rules of course)?

      Speaking of which, if you look to the arguments against integrating the military when Truman was president, I think you will see the same arugments you see now.

    • It’s not a soldier’s privilege to serve–it’s our privilege to have a soldier serve. It’s a volunteer service, and greatly appreciated. The least we can do is to allow our soldiers to serve as themselves, rather than as indentured servants or something…. Jesus.

  5. From my perspective… as a squad leader of Marines in Vietnam who was deeply engaged in combat.

    I don’t need the additional aggravation. Do your job, leave your sexual preferences at the curb. I don’t give a fuck if you’re gay. If you do then that’s your problem, not mine. I’ve got enough to worry about without worrying about your sensitivity.

    • If you don’t give a fuck someone is gay, then why do you think they should hide it? It’s not a question of ‘leaving’ preferences at the curb–you’re asking people to suppress a basic part of themselves. Surely you mentioned the girl back home during your time in Vietnam?

      Thanks for sharing your opinion tho–I don’t give a fuck that you served in Vietnam. That’s your problem, not mine. I’ve got enough to worry about without worrying about your sensitivity. (Not really–thanks for your service. But really, c’mon).

  6. Marc, I’ve tried three times to answer you. Each time it was eaten by a problem here.

    I’ll just say that I disagree with you. Based only on my experience that you may or may not recognize as valid.

    • your a suck ass pussy bitch run your fucking mouth about my cousin you ware probably one of those pussies that would run to Canada if called upon to serve your country i’m a straight veteran of usn unit 3 of seal team two served my country honorably and take great offence to your uneducated comment about my cousin i’ll beat you like the little punk bitch that you are pussy

  7. I am the cousin of oliver sipple and asshole who claims he was a flaming homo couldn’t even have the balls to list your name you fucking punk bitch your a waste of skin and the air we as civilized people breath wish I could meet you face to face for I am a proud navy seal veteran that would love to put a ass whooping on you before you go talking shit about people you don’t know maybe you should know the person your talking about my ousin was also anolympic diver you dueschbag what the fuck difference does it make if he was gay or not dumbass the man served his country honorably and idoiot pieces of shit want to profile him as a flaming homo and a waste the man saved the president from being assassinated you piece of shitif a gay man came to the rescue of your mother andprevented her from being murdered and rape would he be a flaming homo and a waste your a piece of shit and a punk i’d snap your neck in three seconds

    • I met your cousin we were in a PTSD program togather I just want to let you know that he was a good and kind man. we were given a pass for the weekend so that I wouldent have to get a place or go all the way home he offered me a place to I tock hem up on it. to make things short we had a few drinks and we started to talk about the things that we had gone through about Vietnam and many other things. then he opened up to me and told me that he was gay , at first I dident know what to think, so to break the ice I told hem as long as he wasn’t a serial killer I could deal with that. but to tell you the truth I didn’t care at all for gays. but I can tell you this, that he was man enough to tell me who and what he was. as they say never judge a book by its cover, the cover says I’m gay, but the book tells who he really was, in closing I just want to say I am glad that I got to meet hem.

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