Closeted gay man became a “gay hero” when he saved the President’s life after an assassination attempt by Sarah Jane Moore
Within the month that President Ford granted Nixon a full pardon, two would-be assassins both members of the Manson Family cult attempted to take his life on two occasions. It was a openly gay man in San Fransisco, but was not out in is hometown in Detroit, who saved the President’s life when Sarah Jane Moore made the second assassination attempt, and who, in the process, ruined his own.
Oliver “Billy” Sipple thwarted the second attempt at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco on Sept. 22, 1975. On Sept. 24, Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected city supervisor of San Francisco, told San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen that Sipple was a “gay hero” and that national recognition would help break down stereotypes.
While Sipple was out in San Francisco, and had in fact worked on many of Milk’s political campaigns, his family and friends in hometown Detroit were in the dark. After the national media speculated that perhaps Ford had not publicly thanked Sipple yet because he was gay, Sipple’s parents cut ties with him.
Ford issued a letter of gratitude to Sipple on Sept. 25 that stated, “I want you to know how much I appreciated your selfless actions last Monday[Y]ou helped to avert danger to me and to others in the crowd. You have my heartfelt appreciation.”
Sipple kept the letter framed in his apartment, even as he drank himself to death after his family rejected him. Ford responded harshly to the criticisms that he did not thank Sipple as publicly as he would have if he were straight in a 2001 interview with Deb Price.
“As far as I was concerned, I had done the right thing [by writing a note thanking him] and the matter was ended,” Ford said. “I didn’t learn until sometime later I can’t remember when he was gay.”
Milk, who actively encouraged all gays and lesbians to get out of the closet, was assassinated, along with the city’s mayor, in 1978 by a former city supervisor. He became known as a martyr for the early LGBT community.
However, his outspoken views at a very closeted time resulted in tragedy and death for more than just himself.
Sipple’s plight is one of many cases that illustrate why journalists should ask themselves tough ethical questions before publishing personal information, said Dr. Camille Kraeplin, an assistant professor in the division of journalism at SMU.
“Are there public benefits because we’re trying to serve the public,” Kraeplin tells her students. “And if there aren’t public benefits, then there’s very little reason to publish private information, especially if there’s a possibility that you will harm somebody.”
Usually private citizens are left alone by the information-hungry media, but sometimes their actions put them in the spotlight, with or without their consent.
“[The media] say [the subject is] no longer a purely private citizen,” she said. “But that person didn’t ask for it. So I don’t think it’s truly legitimate. The media will, because there is public interest involved, they will use that excuse when in fact they should rein themselves in a bit.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, January 5, 2007.