Everyone is familiar with the overarching details of the JFK and Lincoln assassinations, and those with an interest in history are likely familiar with the death of William McKinley and the attempted shooting of Ronald Reagan, but few remember the attempted Gerald Ford assassination. Even fewer remember the hero who saved him on September 22, 1975: Oliver Sipple. The story of Oliver Sipple and Gerald Ford is a happy one for Ford, who had his life saved, and a terrible one for Sipple, who had his life ruined.
Rather than being recognized as a former Marine who did his country proud on the homefront after serving overseas, most of the media coverage about Sipple focused on his sexuality, which he tried to keep under wraps until then. Instead of being hailed as an American hero who had selflessly protected the President of the United States, Sipple was outed as a homosexual by the media, which had the unfortunate side effect of destroying Sipple’s relationship with his family and ultimately his life.
The 33-year-old former Marine Oliver Sipple was gathered with a crowd of onlookers in San Francisco to catch a glimpse of President Gerald Ford on September 22, 1975. By sheer coincidence, standing beside him was Sara Jane Moore, a troubled woman who was set on assassinating President Ford after a failed attempt by Manson family member Lynette Fromme 17 days earlier.
Moore pulled out her revolver and fired off a shot that narrowly missed Ford’s head. Sipple then sprang into action, grabbing Moore’s arm just before she could fire a second shot. The second bullet hit a local taxi driver, but he survived. Sipple was initially praised as a hero.
Shockingly, the person who leaked Sipple's sexual preferences to the media was none other than Harvey Milk, a prominent gay activist. Milk and Sipple were close associates and knew each other well. Milk was running for office as San Francisco city supervisor, and Sipple was working on his campaign.
Milk wanted to use Sipple's story to give a boost to the fledgling gay rights movement. Milk was reported as saying, "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," before leaking Sipple’s personal secrets to Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle. Milk did not seek Sipple’s consent.
Sipple received his 15 minutes of fame, but the media scrutiny extended his time in the spotlight to a lifetime of anguish. Sipple, who lived in San Francisco but was raised in Detroit, was known in the San Francisco gay community. There, he was an activist for gay rights, but back in Detroit, he was closeted back home.
When the media caught wind of Sipple’s sexuality, that suddenly became the focus of the story - how a gay hero had saved the President’s life. Without having any say in the matter, Sipple was publicly outed by several newspapers.
Oliver Sipple was a prominent member of the San Francisco gay community, but he had yet to come out to any of his family or friends back home in Detroit. The news came as a shock to them, particularly his mother, who disowned him.
Sipple’s family immediately became the subject of intense local gossip, and Sipple’s father and brothers found themselves regularly harassed and taunted at work about Sipples’s sexuality. This led to Sipple becoming estranged from his family, and all because he chose to save the president’s life.