By Leslie Robinson
The death of former President Gerald Ford has resurrected the name of Oliver “Billy” Sipple. He’s the fellow credited with saving Ford from an assassination attempt. I’m not sure I ever knew Sipple was gay, or that his heroism was his undoing. n fact, you could fill the San Andreas Fault with what I didn’t know about him.
No longer. I’ve studied up on the guy who made it possible for President Ford to reach the stately age of 93.
In one month in 1975, Ford must’ve felt like a human bull’s eye. On Sept. 5, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a member of the oh-so dysfunctional Charles Manson family, flubbed an attempt to fire at him in Sacramento.
On the 22nd, Ford exited the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, and waved to the crowd of about 3,000 people gathered to see him. Two shots rang out. The first barely missed him. The second angled five feet wide, not because Sara Jane Moore was a lousy shot, but because Billy Sipple had lunged at her as she pulled the trigger.
President Ford, the month of September, the state of California and possessed women did not mix.
Neither, as it turned out, did Sipple and the press. Dying for tidbits about the new national hero, reporters dug Sipple, according to Wikipedia, wanted no mention of his orientation, as neither his mother nor his employer knew the truth.
Openly gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk blabbed. He called Sipple a “gay hero,” and said his actions “will help break the stereotype of homosexuals.” Gay lib groups urged the local press to acknowledge Sipple as a gay champion.
I can practically see the bell-bottomed, shaggy-haired clash between what Sipple needed and the community needed. Not exactly a concept stuck in time, is it?
Two days after Sipple deflected Moore’s shot, The San Francisco Chronicle ran a piece saying one reason the White House hadn’t yet thanked Sipple was he was gay. His mother reacted to the outing by cutting off contact with her boy. His relations with his relations never healed.
Sipple was shocked by the outing, noted 365Gay.com, and stated, “My sexual orientation has nothing at all to do with saving the president’s life, just as the color of my eyes or my race has nothing to do with what happened in front of the St. Francis Hotel.”
He took the time-honored American route of suing The Chronicle and other newspapers for invading his privacy. The legal process took the time-honored American route of dragging on until 1984, when he lost for good.
Born in Detroit, Sipple had served as a Marine in Vietnam, where he was wounded. He was then in and out of VA hospitals, apparently suffering both physically and psychologically. After his excruciating brush with celebrity, his physical and mental health plummeted, and he cozied up with booze. He was found dead in his apartment in 1989 at the age of 47. Police said he’d been dead for two weeks.
For him, Sipple’s 15 minutes of fame were 16 minutes too many. It seems that military service and probably the closet roughed him up; being a hero finished him off.
His quick action that day aided Ford and the nation, and likely helped the gay reputation, too. But I’ll bet Sipple many times wished he’d heeded the words of a famously cheesy song of the day: “Billy, don’t be a hero.”
Only 30 people attended his funeral. Now, at least, we can celebrate that Billy Sipple, like Mark Bingham, showed that heroism is a color gay people can wear.