Today is Oliver W. Sipple Day in San Francisco, which honors the man who in 1975 grabbed the arm of Sarah Jane Moore when he saw her aiming a .38-caliber pistol at Gerald Ford outside the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco.
No, S.F. is not gaga over the half-term president. Instead, Sipple has for more than one-third of a century been used as a symbol of homosexual awesomeness for the gay rights movement -- even though he wasn't officially out at the time.
Sipple was a decorated U.S. Marine who was wounded by shrapnel during combat in Vietnam.That he risked his life to save his commander in chief, even though he was not on duty, has added to his heft.
But the special day marks an odd way to honor a man who during his life resisted efforts by others to exploit his sexual orientation in support of the gay rights cause.
The Board of Supervisors resolution, signed in February 2011 by Mayor Ed Lee, making Sept. 22 Oliver Sipple day, might be counted as the latest brick in a Sipple-as-gay-hero legend that was built without his permission.
Three days after Sipple saved Ford's life in front of the St. Francis Hotel, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen ran a piece suggesting that the hero's bravery and background might help erase stereotypes depicting homosexuals as weak. Caen wrote:
One of the heroes of the day, Oliver 'Bill' Sipple, the ex-Marine who grabbed Sara Jane Moore's arm just as her gun was fired and thereby may have saved the President's life, was the center of midnight attention at the Red Lantern, a Golden Gate Ave. bar he favors. The Rev. Ray Broshears, head of Helping Hands, and Gay Politico, Harvey Milk, who claim to be among Sipple's close friends, describe themselves as 'proud -- maybe this will help break the stereotype'. Sipple is among the workers in Milk's campaign for Supervisor.
Thereafter, the hundreds of stories around the country describing Sipple's bravery mentioned the fact he was a prominent member of the San Francisco gay community.
Sipple had been in the closet to his family back home in Detroit, and the nationwide stories outed him. Sipple sued Caen, the Chronicle, the paper's owners, and the L.A. Times, which had picked up the story. Sipple asserted that the stories were an invasion of privacy.
The papers publicly disclosed private facts, ones that at the time fit the legal standard of being "considered objectionable to a reasonable person."
However, constitutional case law had previously settled on the idea that newspapers cannot be considered to have committed invasion of privacy when they expose "matters of legitimate public concern."
Sipple was scorned by family and hometown friends once he was outed. And the same prejudices that motivated that behavior made his sexual orientation a newsworthy fact "of legitimate public concern" -- and thus not a legitimate target for an invasion of privacy lawsuit.
Sipple performed an extraordinary act of bravery, in defense of the national good. He was a decorated Marine. And he was gay. In 1975, that was big news.
Sipple's physical condition continued to decline as his alcoholism worsened. He survived on his pension, supplemented by a night job at a bar. He had a pacemaker, and weighed approximately 300 pounds at the time of his 47th birthday. His $334 per month apartment near the Tenderloin District of San Francisco was plastered with newspaper clippings of his actions on the fateful September afternoon in 1975. His prized possession was the framed letter from the White House.
Oliver Sipple was found dead on February 2, 1989 in his apartment. It was estimated that he probably died on January 19. On that day, Sipple visited a friend and spoke of his being turned away at the Veterans Administration hospital when he went concerning his difficulty in breathing.
A small funeral for Billy was attended by 30 people, and he was laid to rest in Golden Gate National Cemetery south of San Francisco.
Despite the difficult years following his saving of Ford, Sipple act of heroism is counted as a milestone in the fight for gay rights, irrespective of whether or not he wanted it that way.
Sipple's not around to complain. So we'll join the crowd, and add this blog post to the pile of reports on the fact that Billy Sipple was one awesome homosexual.