Thursday, July 2, 2009

Who's that Queer?

Brought to you by Pistol Pete

Oliver "Billy" Sipple was a decorated Marine and Vietnam veteran widely known for saving the life of President Gerald Ford during an assassination attempt in San Francisco on September 22, 1975. The subsequent public revelation that Sipple was gay turned the news story into a torch for gay activists.

Sipple was part of a crowd of about 3,000 people who had gathered outside San Francisco's St. Francis to see President Ford on September 22, 1975.

Ford, just emerging from the building, was vulnerable despite heavy security protection. Sipple noticed a woman next to him had pulled and leveled a .38-caliber pistol at Ford as he headed to his limousine. Reacting instinctively, Sipple lunged at the shooter, Sarah Jane Moore, just as her finger squeezed the trigger. While the gun did go off, the impact was enough to deflect her aim and cause the bullet to veer wide of its mark. The bullet hit John Ludwig, a 42-year-old taxi driver. Ludwig survived.

Despite his wishes, gay activist Harvey Milk publicly proclaimed Sipple a 'gay hero' and said his act 'will help break the stereotype of homosexuals'. Gay liberation groups petitioned local media to give Sipple his due as a gay hero. Then columnist Herb Caen published the private side of the former Marine's story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Six other papers ran the column as well. After discovering her son's secret, Sipple's mother reacted to the knowledge of her son's sexual orientation by cutting off contact with him. Sipple's mother was reportedly harassed by her neighbours. When her son called to talk to her, she hung up on him. According to a 2006 Washington Post article, Sipple went through a period of estrangement with his parents, but the family later reconciled with his sexual orientation.

Sipple's mental and physical health sharply declined over the years. He drank heavily, gained weight, was fitted with a pacemaker, became paranoid and suicidal. On 2 February 1989, he was found dead in his bed, at the age of forty-seven. Earlier that day, Sipple had visited a friend and said he had been turned away by the Veterans' Administration hospital where he went concerning his difficulty in breathing.


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