By Bob Roehr
Stonewall had occurred but its importance was only beginning to become etched into the consciousness of an emerging gay community, let alone mainstream America, when Gerald R. Ford served as president for 29 months during the mid-1970s.
The nation’s 38th president died Dec. 26 at age 93.
Yet his presidency was in retrospect, a surprisingly gay-tolerant period. Over the next decades the community would face a backlash from the twin specters of AIDS and the political rise of social conservatives within the Republican Party.
The most overtly gay aspect of Ford’s presidency was that an openly gay man, Oliver “Bill” Sipple, foiled an assassination attempt and possibly saved Ford’s life. That single event may have generate more positive press for the gay community than any other to that point. The incident occurred on the streets of San Francisco in September 1975, when Sara Jane Moore fired two shots at the president as he was entering a limousine. The first shot just missed Ford and Sipple, a Vietnam vet who was standing beside Moore, reacted to the shot by pushing away her arm as she fired again.
The San Francisco Chronicle subsequently outed Sipple as being gay. It was a surprise to his family back in Michigan and resulted in a temporary estrangement between them Ford sent a personal letter of appreciation to Sipple, which he displayed prominently.
Sipple had earned a Purple Heart for his wounds in Vietnam and was receiving disability pay for war-related psychological problems. The outing only contributed to those problems and to his alcoholism. He died in 1989 at the age of 47.
There also were persistent rumors within the community that one of the president’s sons, Steven, was gay.
Steven skipped college and eventually made his way to Hollywood, where he has had a journeyman’s career as an actor, appearing for six years on the daytime soap “The Young and the Restless” and in dozens of films and television episodes. And, there may have been something to those gay rumors as the actor, now 50, has never married.
Gerald Ford’s conservatism was that of limited spending and limited government. He believed that everyone should be treated with fairness, dignity, and equality. “I have always believed in an inclusive policy in welcoming gays and others into the [Republican] party…I think they ought to be treated equally. Period.” he told Detroit New columnist Deb Price in a 2001 interview.
That philosophy led Ford to lend his name to an advisory board of the Republican Unity Coalition (RUC) in 2002. The gay-straight alliance focuses on making homosexuality a non-issue within the Republican Party.
“I will never forget, and history should not, that President Ford was the first, and so far the only, president to join a gay organization…He was very clear about his support for our effort,” said Charles Francis, one of the founders of the RUC.
Among those paying their respects to Ford as he lay in state under the Capitol Rotunda were Mary Cheney and Heather Poe. Mary was a small child when her father served as Ford’s chief of staff. She also was a member of the RUC.
“President Ford recognized that all Americans deserve to be treated with dignity and fairness,” said Patrick Sammon, president of Log Cabin Republicans. “Throughout his presidency, President Ford served with integrity as a leader for all Americans.”
Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese added, “His belief for inclusion and fairness are the characteristics of a national leader.”
After the public viewing and services at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., Ford was laid to rest in his home town of Grand Rapids on January 3.