In the September of 1975, Oliver (‘Billy’) Sipple was an ex-marine of thirty-three, injured in Vietnam and living in San Francisco. He was in and out of the veteran’s hospital, six years into civilian life.
One afternoon, he stood in a crowd of thousands of people to see the visiting President Gerald Ford leave a San Francisco hotel from across the street. Ford stopped to wave. Suddenly, a shot sounded, and Oliver saw a woman nearby adjusting the aim of her revolver. He lunged and grabbed her arm, sending the second bullet into the hotel, injuring a man inside.
Oliver was thanked for saving the president, and celebrated as a hero by the media. A heroic veteran.
Soon the media learned that he was in fact a heroic gay veteran.
Oliver had shared his sexual orientation with with the San Francisco gay community—or at least he had worked at a gay bar, paraded for gay pride, demonstrated for gay rights, helped in the (LGBT) Imperial Court System, and worked on the campaign to elect openly gay board of supervisors candidate Harvey Milk. But he hadn’t shared it with his family in Detroit, who had more old-fashioned impressions about the morality of homosexuality. He also hadn’t shared it with the world at large, who after all, lived at a time when evidence of a gay person being a public hero was considered fascinating news.
How did the media learn about this? Perhaps there were many sources, or would have been eventually. But the morning after the shooting, two prominent gay activists each outed Oliver to the San Francisco Chronicle. One was Reverend Ray Broshears, leader of the ‘Lavender Panthers’. The other was Oliver’s own friend, Harvey Milk.
Harvey is reported to have explained privately to a friend, “It’s too good an opportunity. For once we can show that gays do heroic things, not just all that caca about molesting children and hanging out in bathrooms.”
The next day, Herb Caen, the San Francisco Chronicle reporter who received these messages, reported to the world that Oliver was gay. He added that Oliver was friends with Harvey Milk, and speculated that President Ford hadn’t invited him to the White House because of his sexual orientation.
Somewhere in here, Oliver asked that the media not report on the topic of his sexual orientation, lest his family or current employer learn of it. It’s not clear to me whether this was in time for them to definitively know that he didn’t want them to when they first did it, since apparently Caen ‘couldn’t contact him’.
At any rate, the topic was reported on thoroughly. Gay activists called for his recognition as a gay hero. He was deluged by reporters, and hid at a friend’s house, at which point they turned to interviewing Harvey Milk. Harvey opined that President Ford’s gratitude would indeed have flowed more generously had Oliver been straight.
Oliver’s mother was purportedly harassed by her neighbors, and declared her intent never to speak to him again. He was estranged from his family. His father at some point instructed his brother to forget that he had a brother.
Oliver sued the reporter Caen and numerous newspapers and publishers for the invasion of his privacy. The suit was dismissed, but he fought on. In 1984 a state court of appeals held that he had become news, and his sexual orientation was part of the story.
Oliver didn’t do well after becoming a hero. He drank heavily, was diagnosed with schizophrenia, put on weight, and needed a pacemaker. Over a drink, he was heard to say that he regretted grabbing the gun.
It is said that he eventually reconciled with his family, but it is also said that his father didn’t let him come to his mother’s funeral, so granting both stories it may have been a late or mild reconciliation.
One February day in 1989, Oliver’s friend found him dead in his San Francisco apartment, alongside a bottle of Jack Daniels and a running television. He was 47.
Years later, journalistic ethics professors found this an instructive class discussion topic.