Oliver "Bill" Sipple, a paunchy former Marine and high school football star, aged 33, was walking past San Francisco's St. Francis Hotel on September 22, 1975, when President Ford emerged. Just three weeks before in Sacramento, Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, a deranged acolyte of the murderous cult leader Charles Manson, had got within a few yards of the President with a loaded gun. She had failed to get a shot off, but now the Secret Service was watching a small crowd of protesters across the street.

Sipple moved toward the front of the crowd to see his president. He saw him all right-as well as a gray-haired woman by his side, pulling a revolver out of her blue raincoat. Sipple grabbed her arm. Her shot missed the President by a few feet. Sipple wrestled her to the ground, and prevented her from getting off a second shot by shoving his hand into the firing mechanism.

Sipple shunned publicity. He was gay and he had never told his straitlaced Baptist mother. But Harvey Milk knew. "That guy saved the President's life. It shows that we do good things, not just all that ca-ca about molesting children and hanging out in bathrooms." It was Milk, according to the respected journalist Randy Shilts, in his biography The Mayor of Castro Street, who outed Sipple by an item dropped in Herb Caen's gossip column. A despairing Sipple told reporters: "I want you to know that my mother told me today she can't walk out of her front door because of the press stories." He insisted: "My sexual orientation has nothing to do with saving the President's life." Apparently President Ford thought it did. There was no invitation to the White House for Sipple, not even a commendation. Milk made a fuss about that. Finally, weeks later, Sipple received a brief note of thanks.

Exposure was too much for Sipple. Already listless, he drifted into alcoholism and drug dependency, finally taking his own life. It was a sorry end to a heroic act-and the beginning of an issue that would roil the gay community and identity politics in the decades to come. Did anyone have a right to "out" someone else?

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Copyright © 1998 by Harold Evans