Oliver Sipple: Case Study on the Ethics of Outing

sipple.jpgGonna take a little break from the usual topical brouhaha (T.R.Knight, Brothers & Sisters, etc.) and post something about Oliver Sipple. With Gerald Ford’s recent passing it’s worth remembering the gay man who, back in 1975, foiled an assasination attempt on the President’s life. Ford was outside the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco when Sarah Jane Moore, not 40-feet away, pulled out a gun and took aim. Sipple, a Vietnam vet, happened to be standing nearby. He deflected her shot by grabbing her arm and then wrestled her to the ground.

At the time of the incident Sipple was living in San Francisco and known in the local gay community, but he wasn’t out to his employer or to his family back in Detroit. His reward for saving Ford’s life? He was subsequently outed against his will, first by Harvey Milk, who publicly proclaimed Sipple a “gay hero” and said his act would help break homosexual stereotypes. The San Francisco Chronicle followed suit by publishing details of Sipple’s private life — which other media outlets picked up.

The result was, his own mother disowned him and cut off all contact for a number of years. Sipple, an intensely private man, was devastated. In the years that followed he grew increasingly bitter and battled with alcoholism. According to his brother, “There were a lot of times he wished he had never saved the President’s life, for all the anguish it caused him.”

Sipple’s is a sad story, and it is often used as a case study on the “ethics of outing” in journalism school. If you’re curious to read more about the man I recommend this informative article by Liz Highleyman for CampKC. (And no, that does not refer to the Kentucky Fried Chicken Employee Newsletter.)