Sep 25, 2017

'Now What Am I Known For?' Trying to Find Oliver Sipple's Legacy

Our latest episode tells the story of Oliver Sipple, a Vietnam vet who went for a walk one day, and ended up saving then-President Gerald Ford from an assassin’s bullet.  A day later, renowned gossip columnist Herb Caen - in conjunction with the activist Harvey Milk - outed Sipple as gay. Sipple hadn't told his family.  The revelation made national news and he eventually sued several newspapers for invading his privacy.

As we reported this story out, we were curious to hear what those headlines about Sipple meant to those who read them back in 1975. What did it mean for a young person living in the closet back then to learn that a gay man saved the President’s life? What did it mean to someone serving in the Marines, since Sipple himself was a former Marine? What did it mean to someone who had never met an openly gay person before? Further, we were interested whether Sipple’s story ever made a lasting impact on anyone’s else’s life, either at the time or since. 

Trying to capture something so evanescent as a reaction to a headline forty years after the fact is no small challenge, but we started calling up some organizations we thought might be able to help.  Turns out, we didn’t have much luck.  But in all those calls, we did talk to two people who shared what Sipple and his story meant to them. And - although we had to cut them from our story for time - we still wanted to share snippets from those conversations.

Denny Meyer, also a Vietnam veteran, lived in San Francisco at the same time as Oliver Sipple.  He now works as a Public Affairs Officer for the Transgender American Veterans Association, and the American Veterans for Equal Rights.  Here’s our phone call with him about San Francisco in the 70s, a time when he says “the gods of the gay revolution walked the earth like ordinary mortals”: 

Allen Jones is a longtime San Francisco resident and activist. Although he lived in the city back in 1975, he only heard about Sipple’s story many years after the fact, doing research in the San Francisco Public Library.  Our phone call with Allen was particularly touching and powerful.  We were especially moved to hear how much Sipple’s story meant to him, and how reading it compelled him to become an advocate for Oliver Sipple. Back in 2011, he worked tirelessly to get the city of San Francisco to recognize the deceased hero and it worked. The city declared September 22nd Oliver W. Sipple Day. Here’s our phone call with Allen:  

Of course, we’d love to hear more reactions to Oliver Sipple'sstory. Whatever your sexual orientation, wherever you live, however old you are, whether you first heard the story today or back when it happened, we’d love to know what it means to you.  Comment below!

THE LAB sticker

Unlock member-only exclusives and support the show

Exclusive Podcast Extras
Entire Podcast Archive
Listen Ad-Free
Behind-the-Scenes Content
Video Extras
Original Music & Playlists