Outing Oliver Sipple: The Health Effects of Being Outed as a Gay Hero

John A. Carranza //

Last month, Love, Simon the film adaptation of the young adult novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli was released. The movie has garnered recognition for being one of the first major motion pictures that addressed the experience of being a gay teenager struggling with his identity under the threat of being outed.  In the film, being outed had little serious effect on Simon. He was briefly shunned by his friends, which was a result of conflict of his own making to avoid being outed. In the vein of other teen movies, Love, Simon has a happily-ever-after conclusion, but gives the viewer an avenue for reflecting on what it means to out a member of the LGBTQ community before they are ready to come out on their own terms. For many members of the community, being outed has the serious consequences of social isolation, depression, and suicide, among others.

“Outing” as a term was not in common usage until the late 1980s and early 1990s. At the time, outing was inherently political. The AIDS epidemic raged and the administrations of President Ronald Reagan and President George H.W. Bush dragged their feet in acknowledging the epidemic and then handling it as a serious public health crisis. In frustration, many gay and lesbian activists threatened to out prominent closeted members of the community. By remaining silent, activists reasoned, they were implicit in the deaths of hundreds of gay men and women. Outing also became political in the late 1990s when, for example, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” became part of the President Bill Clinton’s major achievements. Under the policy, gays and lesbians could serve in the military if they did not speak of their sexual orientation. However, if they were outed, they could receive a dishonorable discharge and lose military benefits.[1]

Historically, what were the effects of outing someone on their overall health and well-being? In what ways did saving a President’s life have an effect become partly political and partly a source for understanding the elimination of privacy and how that effects a person’s health? Oliver “Billy” Sipple’s story can provide some insight into these questions.

On September 22, 1975, Oliver Sipple waited for two hours in a crowd outside of San Francisco’s St. Francis Hotel to catch a glimpse of President Gerald Ford. He was not immediately able to reach the front because of “those damn demonstrators,” but as the mass of people shifted, he got closer to the street where the President’s car was waiting. When President Ford walked out of the nearby hotel, Sarah Jean Moore fired a shot at him, but missed. When Sipple saw the gun, and realized what was happening he pushed her gun down and immobilized it before she could fire a second shot at the president. Moore was arrested and Sipple was released after being questioned and cleared of any wrongdoing by the Secret Service.[2]

 

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Sarah Jean Moore can be seen just behind the bar in this photo. Oliver Sipple is on the left.

The resulting media coverage of the event was beyond what Sipple could have imagined. While he was known in the local gay community, the widespread reporting of his heroic deed essentially outed him to the rest of the country. Some members of the gay community chided Sipple for not being forthcoming about his sexuality. For too long, the community desired a role model who would defy the myths and stereotypes of gay men. In response to the coverage of his sexuality, Sipple issued a statement: “My sexuality is a part of my private life and has no bearing on my response to the act of a person seeking to take the life of another.”[3] Regardless of this simple plea, Sipple’s family found out and he became estranged from his parents and siblings. When his mother passed away not long after he was outed, Sipple’s father told him that he was not welcome home for her funeral.[4]

Living in San Francisco in the 1970s, Sipple was shielded from much of the homophobia that existed in the rest of the country. However, nationwide coverage of his actions exposed him to widespread critique and analysis. Sipple’s outing proved to be too much, and within a week of initially thwarting the assassination attempt of President Ford, he filed a lawsuit against the San Francisco Chronicle and the journalist, Herb Caen, who outed him in the first reporting of the incident. In addition to estrangement from his family, the suit also maintained that Sipple “was exposed to contempt and ridicule, causing him great mental anguish, embarrassment and humiliation.”[5] Much of Sipple’s problems were coupled with previous diagnoses of schizophrenia and dyslexia. He also received a disability pension from an injury received in Vietnam. The lawsuit reached its conclusion in 1980 with the judge dismissing the suit.  The judge in the lower court maintained that in preventing the assassination of the president, he had become a celebrity, and as such, had relinquished his right to privacy. The case was appealed, and in 1984, the California Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling.[6]

Oliver “Billy” Sipple died in January 1989, alone in his apartment. A regular at a local bar, his friends became concerned when he had not shown up for several days. The coroner’s report listed his cause of death as “natural causes,” but his friends believed, citing breathing difficulties, that he may have died of pneumonia. In an obituary that ran in the Los Angeles Times, Dan Morain detailed how Sipple’s life had slowly grown more isolated after the prolonged battle with the newspapers that outed him. In fact, much of Morain’s reporting of Sipple’s life depicted a man who was sick and lonely despite being surrounded by friends. His diagnoses of schizophrenia and dyslexia before he stopped the attempted assassination of President Ford were heightened after his outing. Among some of the problems he faced were that: “he became more nervous, drank more, considered suicide and thought people were following him.”[7]  In a 1979 deposition he even admitted: “I have a lot of stress and I take it out on booze.”[8] Oliver Sipple’s precarious mental health issues, the stress of being isolated from family, and his turn to drinking likely hastened some of the medical problems he encountered, of which included weighing nearly three hundred pounds at his death and having a pacemaker.

While not every member of the LGBTQ community will stop an assassination attempt on the President of the United States, the case of Oliver “Billy” Sipple points to a very real issue with outing. Members of the LGBTQ community have personal reasons for not being out and should be allowed to make the decision about when and where to come out. In 2018, with the prevalence of social media and almost unlimited access to other people’s lives, it should be remembered that for some the act of being outed could have very serious consequences.

* In my next post, I will contradict these conclusions by pointing to situations in which the act of outing is necessary to survival. Specifically focusing on the AIDS epidemic and activists’ desire to push for visibility.

[1] Marc Stein, “Coming Out and Outing,” Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered History in America, edited by Marc Stein, (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004), 254-255. Gale Virtual Reference Library, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX3403600124/GVRL?u=txshracd2598&sid=GVRL&xid=65194430. Accessed 2 Apr. 2018.

[2] “Woman Fires Shot at Ford,” Dallas Morning News (Dallas, TX), September 23, 1975; “’I’m no Hero’: Viet Vet’s Quick Action Saved Ford’s Life,” Dallas Morning News (Dallas, TX), September 24, 1975.

[3] William Safire, “Saving President Had Its Drawbacks,” Dallas Morning News (Dallas, TX), October 1, 1975.

[4] “Man in Ford Case Sues Newspapers: Says Homosexual Report Alienated His Family,” New York Times (New York, NY), October 1, 1975; Dan Morain, “Sorrow Trailed a Veteran Who Saved a President and Then Was Cast in an Unwanted Spotlight,” Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, CA), February 13, 1989.

[5] “Man in Ford Case Sues Newspapers.”

[6] Warren Johansson and William A. Percy, Outing: Shattering the Conspiracy of Silence (New York: Harrington Park Press, 1994), 127-128; “Sorrow Trailed a Veteran Who Saved a President…”; Jesus Rangel, “O.W. Sipple, 47, Who Blocked An Attempt to Kill Ford in 1975,” New York Times (New York, NY), February 4, 1989.

[7] “Sorrow Trailed a Veteran Who Saved a President…”

[8] Ibid.

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