President Ford winces at the sound of the gun fired by Sarah Jane Moore during the assassination attempt in San Francisco, California, on Sept. 22, 1975. White House Photograph Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Library. Photographer: David Hume Kennerly.
From the TDB archives: This instalment of Three Dollar Bill originally ran in HOUR magazine on January 11, 2007.
I once wrote in this column that if I spotted an assassin aiming his gun at the current president of the United States, George W. Bush – whose administration is hands-down the most homophobic in the history of that great nation – I would coldly turn around and walk away.
I was reminded of that last week as America mourned the passing of former president Gerald Ford, who died on Dec. 26, 2006, but whose life, on Sept. 22, 1975, was saved by a gay man whose own life was destroyed in the process.
On that September day thousands of people stood cheering the President outside the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco when a middle-aged FBI informant named Sara Jane Moore pulled out her chrome-plated .38 revolver and aimed at Ford.
Oliver "Billy" Sipple, a 33-year-old retired marine who’d been wounded twice in Vietnam, lunged for Moore. A shot rang out but the bullet missed Ford – who stood just 35 feet away – and Sipple wrestled Moore to the ground and became a national hero.
The next day, the first openly gay politician in America, San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk – who, along with San Francisco mayor George Moscone, would be assassinated in 1978 – told a reporter that Sipple not only worked on his political campaign, but was also gay.
Several publications, notably the San Francisco Chronicle, ran the story and Sipple was dubbed America’s "Homosexual Hero."
Sipple told reporters, "My sexual orientation has nothing at all to do with saving the President’s life, just as the colour of my eyes or my race has nothing to do with what happened in front of the St. Francis Hotel."
Still, he was disowned by his conservative Baptist family. Sipple filed a $15-million (U.S.) invasion-of-privacy lawsuit against several newspapers (which was dismissed in 1980), was only told of his mother’s death after her funeral, slipped into alcoholism and died a penniless, broken man of an apparent heart attack in January 1989.
Police said Sipple sat dead in his apartment for two weeks. He was 47.
Hanging on a nearby wall was Sipple’s most prized possession, a framed letter from President Ford, dated Sept. 27, 1975. It read, "I want you to know how much I appreciated your selfless actions last Monday. The events were a shock to us all, but you acted quickly and without fear for your own safety. By doing so, you helped to avert danger to me and to others in the crowd. You have my heartfelt appreciation."
Ford did not find out until much later that Sipple was gay, and in 2001 joined the Republican Unity Coalition which advocates for gay and lesbian civil rights. He was the first and remains the only American president to have ever joined a gay civil-rights organization.
Two years later I twice unsuccessfully tried to get an interview with Ford via the Gerald Ford Foundation in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. But gay columnist Deb Price of The Detroit News, a long-time friend of this column, managed to score a phoner with Ford in October 2001.
When she asked him whether the feds should outlaw anti-gay job discrimination and treat gay couples the same as married heterosexuals, Ford replied, "I think they ought to be treated equally. Period."
But in America in 2007, there is no federal workplace discrimination protection based on sexual orientation. In other words, you can still be fired just for being gay.
As Philly-based Equality Forum executive director Malcolm Lazin told me last week, "It would be a wonderful tribute for his fellow Republicans joined by the Democratic majority to introduce, pass and send to President Bush the Gerald Ford Workplace Nondiscrimination Protection Act ensuring workplace equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans."
Personally, I’d call it the Oliver Sipple Workplace Nondiscrimination Protection Act.
As Ford himself told Deb Price, "I have always believed in an inclusive policy, in welcoming gays and others into the [Republican] party. I think the party has to have an umbrella philosophy if it expects to win elections."
Of course, George W. Bush did exactly the opposite, winning the presidency not once but twice by scaring America with his rabidly anti-gay agenda.
So it bears repeating: Since his first prayer his first day in the Oval Office, Bush and his administration have been the most homophobic in the history of America. The Bush administration has hurt and broken the lives of countless gay people – gay people who have loyally served their country, brave folks like Oliver Sipple who even gave his life for a president.
But I tell you, had it been George Dubya instead of Gerald Ford walking out of the St-Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco, and had it been me instead of Oliver Sipple standing next to Sara Jane Moore, I would have turned around and walked away.