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.)