The Outing of Oliver Sipple

Sounds like a Lifetime movie title, no?

Oliver Sipple was a former Marine who saved the life of then-President Gerald R. Ford. Just three weeks after Ford was targeted by Manson follower Lynnete “Squeaky” Fromme, the President was leaving San Francisco’s St. Francis Hotel when Sara Jane Moore, reportedly angry about the government’s domestic “war on the left,” pointed a pistol at Ford and fired. Sipple saw her point the gun and grabbed her arm, deflecting the shot; it missed Ford, hit a wall, and riccocheted into a bystander, slightly injuring him. The Secret Service declared Sipple a hero.

Sipple was gay. He was not out of the closet; his family and his employer did not know, although he had participated in past Gay Pride events. When the national spotlight hit him for saving Ford’s life, Harvey Milk, the openly gay activist who would go on to become a city supervisor before being assassinated himself, contacted newspapers to advise them of Sipple’s orientation. The noted San Francisco columnist Herb Caen published the story that outed Sipple as gay. Sipple sued, but ultimately the courts ruled he was a public figure, presumably by virtue of having saved Ford from assassination, and he did not prevail.

Milk had reportedly said, “It’s too good an opportunity. For once we can show that gays do heroic things, not just all that ca-ca about molesting children and hanging out in bathrooms.”

I think that was an assholish thing for Milk to do. One can make the argument that outing, say, a politician who publicly is anti-gay serves some purpose, but all Sipple did was thwart an assassination of the President of the United States. He didn’t want to be outed, and surely he deserved to be able to keep his private life private. It’s almost as though he was punished for the good deed.

I brought this very fact up last October. The whole story is kind of sad.

I like the idea of using Sipple and Milks shared sexuality as the basis of a debate. I am sure Sipple would have appreciated the setiment.

Not being gay and not being politically cognizant at the time, it’s difficult for me to have a perspective on events. Dick thing to do? Probably. Forgetting for the moment the implications of being outed at the time, dragging any accidental tourist further into the fishbowl is a dick thing to do. Furthermore, publicizing private-life details is a dick move, whether he was gay, was a Catholic marrying a Protestant, or still liked to put drumsticks on either side of his nose.

But this was part of (or at least connected to?) the civil rights movement, if for no other reason then it was in the air at the time (please don’t let me accidentally hijack things into that discussion). People were getting hurt both mentally and physically, much of it due to perceptions. While it was a dickish thing to do, we (writ large and small) are societally indebted to the outting. Given where we are today and the ostensible significance of the outting, I don’t think I could condemn it.

There are factors that weigh on this. One is the notion that Sipple participated in gay pride events. I don’t know the extent, but his activity placed him within the realm of the debate. Another factor was his notoriety. It’s an awfully nuanced area, and clearly it was an accidental entry, but society is, on balance, better off with lesser protections for those both voluntarily and involuntarily in the limelight. There should, though (IMHO), be a descending scale from voluntary to not-at-all in terms of levels of protection.

The closest I can analogize to personal witnessing is the Plame affair. Both had journalists outting someone for what they thought were higher motives. They are, however, easily distinguished, and good examples of good/bad | proper/improper conduct. Though one could distil them both down to outting someone in order to advance a cause they thought was right, one cannot filter out the underlying lies in the Plame incident. Her outting was rooted in fostering a public deception and was designed to discredit a known truth by means of perception—a meta-lie, if you will.

Who did that?

Geez, what an asshole thing to do.

All this stuff about a right to privacy - until some politician needs it to push his agenda.


Undoubtedly the beneficiaries of every civil rights movement owe a great deal to those who suffered to advance the cause. Alice Paul was sent to jail and force-fed through a tube to negate her hunger strike, and today women have the vote and owe it in part to her willingness to suffer those indignities.

But that doesn’t mean we should approve of someone unwillingly being put through the wringer, and that’s what happened in this case. You SHOULD condemn this outing, because Sipple did not seek out and did not want to be a public face for gay rights. He wanted, in an instant, to save the life of the President. Thank goodness he didn’t see what his heroism would bring him, or he might have chosen to do nothing, and we’d never know the name Oliver Sipple. But we’d all know the 39th President of the United States was Nelson Rockfeller.

I agree with the fact that his participation in Gay Pride events was arguably relevant. But that’s not what motivated the expose. The newspapers would have no reason to print a story about Oliver Sipple, disabled Marine, living in the Mission District, who is - gasp - gay. There would just be no story there. So, no, I don’t see it. He was outed not because of his GP activities, whatever they were, but because he chose to save a man’s life. Shitty reward.

Is this great debates?

Yes, it is. But so far as I can see, no one has used Sipple and Milks shared sexuality as the basis of a debate. It’s true that Milk’s and Sipple’s shared sexuality is mentioned, but that’s not the basis for the debate. Sipple’s sexuality is mentioned because that’s what he was outed for; it’s the gravamen of the debate. Milk’s sexuality is mentioned as part of the res gestae: it explains why he did what he did. But the basis for the debate is the unwanted outing of a “public” figuer who is public not through his own desire to be public, but by a selfless act that thrust him into the public spotlight.

The debate would be the same, in other words, if a hetereosexual had outed Sipple because he thought a fag shouldn’t get credit for saving the President. (Although I suspect that that motivation would be much less likely to garner sympathy).

I agree. It was callous and selfish, and disrespectful of Sipple’s privacy. Milk used him as a tool to further an agenda. It’s a worthy cause but that doesn’t justify this action.

Are we really? Aside from Oliver Sipple and people who knew him, I question whether anyone’s life would be different if he’d been allowed to keep his sexuality private, or tell people as he saw fit.

I don’t think he had grounds for a lawsuit, and apparently neither did the judge. But as far as being within the realm of the debate goes, this was a different time: nobody was broadcasting the gay pride marches through a Web site and Sipple wasn’t twittering from the parade. He didn’t have a total expectation of privacy but I think it’s reasonable to say he did not expect the country at large to know about his participation.

That is some really twisted logic. So twisted that it should have been part of the OP.

Since this is Great Debates, it’s not sufficient to simply say, “That’s twisted logic.” What, specifcally, is “twisted” about it? I have specifically identified and rebutted your claim. To paraphrase the famous Monty Python skit, “A debate is not simply the automatic gainsay of anything I say.”
Yes, I know what I’m inviting with that line.

I can’t argue with Monty Python.

I dunno. The whole point of a parade is to be seen by the public, just because they didn’t have twitter doesn’t change that. And it doesn’t matters whether or not he thought the country at large to know, I’d say one either has an expectation of privacy or one doesn’t, there is no “expectation of privacy just from national attention.”

I’m not sure that totally absolves Milk, but I’d be a lot more down on him if he was revealing something about Sipple he knew only from private conversations with him. And I certainly simpithyze with Milk’s motivations.

Yes you can!

It’s not clear to me that he participated in a gay pride parade; merely “gay pride events.” And that could be seen as a gesture of solidarity with the gay rights movement; I bet, if we did a survey on this board, we could find many straight people who have attended gay pride events or even a gay pride parade.

Actually, I believe Milk knew Sipple personally though an ex-lover, Joe Campbell, who was also an ex-lover of Sipple’s. So it wasn’t a case of, “I’ve seen that guy at the parades, so he must be gay.”

**Bricker **said:

**bannerrefugee **responded:

I’m not sure I see the twist to the logic. Say a gay-hating heterosexual had outed Sipple because he didn’t want a fag to get credit for saving the President. Milk outed Sipple because he wanted Sipple to get the credit, and thus cause gay people in in general to be seen in a better light by the nation as a whole.

Same act, different motivations. And in each case the effect on Sipple is the same. Something happened to him that he didn’t want to happen.

So, if it’s wrong for the homophobe to out Sipple, why would it be OK for Milk? That’s only arguable if you’re willing to say that (a) the greater good (as defined by, in this case, Milk) trumps any rights of the individual to privacy, or (b) that Milk’s status as a gay leader fighting for gay rights and acceptance exempted him from any obligation to respect the right to privacy of others, or © that Sipple, being gay (even though he chose to keep that fact to himself) somehow fell under the jurisdiction of Milk, a gay “leader”, and thus surrendered his right to privacy to Milk. OK, that last one doesn’t even begin to hold water.

I suspect that Milk believed all three of the above. It’s entirely possible that Milk, like many leaders, had enough ego even to believe ©.

Fair enough, I thought I’d read somewhere that he’d been in a parade, but I can’t find a cite now, so I’m not sure. In any case, I’d say how I feel about it depends on how open Sipple was about his sexuality in his local community.

Are you sure Milk outted him? This article says Milk wanted him to be outted, but that the actual fact of his sexuality was revealed by an anonymous tip to a local newspaperman in SF.

Bear in mind that I fully acknowledge that I’m several steps removed from the situation; my assertions are based on detached perception rather than contemporary observation.

Was he Rosa Parks-like in his profile? Was he one of many, relatively obscure people whose outting exemplified the non-monsterish, non-aberrative nature of homosexuals? I honestly have no idea what the actual extent of his personal impact was, save what I know from history and popular culture.

I agree that being a conscript sucks. I agree that sometimes the toll it takes personally is far greater than the contribution to society. I also believe that his contribution, wrested from his choice as it was, did make for a better society. It doesn’t matter that I never have to worry about getting beaten up or ostracized for my proclivities, that you (the general you) don’t, society is improved.

It was a somewhat big deal at the time, which is exactly what Milk sought to capture by outing him: gays are not furtive rejects propositioning teens in public restrooms; they can be ordinary people, and they can be heroes.

Yes. Society was improved in the sense that acceptance of the gays-as-laudable-people motif was advanced and gays-as-sick-perverts was likewise diminished. But at the same time, society was hurt because a private life and a private secret was made public, and a man’s relationship with his family dramatically damaged, when he didn’t invite those consequences.

On balance, I’d say if the battle can only be won by the sacrifice of unwilling conscripts, it’s probably not worth winning.