The Sipple Life: From Sailboat Bend to 'Nam to 'Frisco, for a Date With Destiny

I don't reckon there's many of you who remember Oliver Sipple. He was the troubled gay man who never wanted to be famous -- and wasn't, really -- even though he deserved to be. If for no other reason than for his knack for accidental encounters with major historical figures. Like Harvey Milk and Gerald Ford.

Sipple is the fascinating subject of a story appearing in this month's issue of Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, by Daniel Luzer. And since the article hasn't posted yet to the magazine's website, I'll have to try to sum it up.

A Detroit native, a still-teenaged Sipple moved in the early 1960s to Greenwich Village, where he met Milk. The two remained friends even after Sipple struck up a relationship with Milk's longtime boyfriend, Joe Campbell. Sipple and Campbell would move to Fort Lauderdale together, where they both struggled to find decent jobs, at one point needing a loan from Milk to make one month's rent payment for their Sailboat Bend apartment, according to the article.

After he and Campbell broke up, Sipple joined the Marines and in 1968 headed off to Vietnam, where he was soon hospitalized for shrapnel wounds. The Viet Cong then bombed his hospital, further injuring Sipple, who was discharged. He landed in San Francisco in 1973, where Milk was trying to break through as the nation's first openly gay elected politician.

On September 22, 1975, Sipple found himself in a crowd waiting for President Gerald Ford to leave a meeting of the World Economic Council. He didn't know it, but he was standing next to a would-be assassin named Sara Jane Moore.

At 3:30 Ford left the St. Francis Hotel, where he had been meeting, and waved to the crowd. Sipple looked at the president. Out of the corner of his right eye he saw a flash of metal: the woman standing in front of him had a gun. Sipple reacted quickly. "Gun," he shouted. "She's got a fucking gun!" He reached out and grabbed Moore's arm.

She missed, of course, firing the gun into the ground thanks to Sipple's quick action. After briefly being considered a suspect, he was cleared, then thanked personally by Ford.

Sipple was not completely open about his orientation, but for his friend Harvey, no single closet case was more important than the mission. The article describes how Milk set up a media trap, tipping off a San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Herb Caen, that Sipple could be found frequenting a gay bar. The article about Sipple quoted gay friends expressing pride and the hope that "maybe this will break the stereotype" that gay man can't be heroes.

Claiming that he was abandoned by his family after the article's publication, Sipple sued Caen. He never saw any money from the suit. In 1989, he was found dead in a San Francisco apartment, where he'd been living alone and in squalor. He was only 47.

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