Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Footnote to History - Oliver Sipple

I'm still a little peeved that the obituary of President Ford I spent two hours working on last night seems to have vanished into cyberspace, like Susan Powter, never to be seen again.

However, in doing further reading I realise now that my obituary had a couple of mistakes in it (which I would have remedied the moment I found them). Which just goes to show that often when crappy things happen they happen for good reasons. It's just too bad they always seem to happen to me and don't happen more to Matt Drudge.

Again, I should just stick to what I do and let people who are good at such things do them.

Thanks to Towleroad, I can do just that. This is the first of what I'd like to make a regular feature here at the Pop Culture Institute. It concerns the day a gay man saved the President's life, so gather round children and let me relate the story...

"[President] Ford might have died on September 22, 1975, when an attempt was made on his life by Sara Jane Moore outside the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, less than three weeks after a similar assassination attempt was made by Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme in Sacramento.

"This time Ford's life was saved by Oliver Sipple, a former Marine who lunged at Moore, deflecting the intended bullet. Sipple was instantly commended but the incident inspired curiosity about the former soldier and it was revealed by Harvey Milk that he was a gay man, a fact that was not known by either his employer or his family. The resulting attention (Harvey Milk, who wanted to show that gay men were not all child molesters and perverts, anointed him a gay hero, inspiring a widely-syndicated write-up from noted columnist Herb Caen) freaked his mother enough to cause her to disown him. At the time Sipple pleaded with reporters: "I want you to know that my mother told me today she can't walk out of her front door because of the press stories...My sexual orientation has nothing to do with saving the President's life."

"Sipple battled the "outing" in court for the next nine years, a battle that was never won. It may have cost the man his sanity. Sipple was found in his San Francisco apartment in February 1989 next to a bottle of booze. Alcoholic and obese, he had been dead for two weeks.

"Gerald Ford did not attend the funeral and instead sent family and friends a letter of condolence. He was criticized by some who said that were Sipple heterosexual he would have been treated differently. Ford told journalist Deb Price in a 2001 interview: "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."

Kinda makes you think. Or, you know, not. Hey, at least it has nothing to do with Paris Hilton.

These events are dealt with in greater depth in Randy Shilts' great book "The Mayor of Castro Street". I suggest you hurry on down to your local gay bookstore and buy or order this amazing book.
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Seumas Gagne said...

Darn that Harvey Milk! Actually, darn the lazy, self-absorbed, immature gay community that didn't help Billy out.

michael sean morris said...

Indeed. Sipple is one of the first modern (ie: post-Stonewall) victims of outing whose story exists in the public record. His greatest fear in the aftermath of his heroism was publicity, since it would reveal his secret. Ultimately, of course, his worst fears - and secrets - were revealed. Harvey Milk outed Sipple to further his agenda - which was a sound one, but a selfish one, and most importantly was one which Sipple himself did not share. Sipple wasn't so much a closet case as post-gay, which wouldn't have sat well with that mid-70s SF crowd - of which Harvey Milk was the leader - who felt that sexual decadence was the only path to gay liberation.

(The Mayor of Castro Street - Randy Shilts - St. Martin's Press, 1982, NYC - pp 121-3)