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Two gay heroes thwart assassinations -- what a difference 35 years make

January 10, 2011 |  5:00 pm

Daniel Hernandez

A 20-year-old congressional college intern with only five days on the job saved Gabrielle Giffords’ life.

Daniel Hernandez ran toward the sound of gunshots. He pressed Safeway workers’ aprons against the congresswoman’s head wound to stanch the bleeding, and lifted her and held her upright so she wouldn’t drown in her own blood. Photos show him evidently covering her hands with his as he walked alongside her as she was carried off on a stretcher.

Daniel Hernandez is gay, a member of Tucson’s city commission on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues. I bring this up not only because gay websites are talking it up, but because it reminds me of another gay man who thwarted an assassination attempt -- but in a very different time and cultural climate.

Oliver Sipple was in a crowd outside the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco more than 35 years ago, on Sept. 22, 1975, as President Gerald Ford was leaving the hotel.

Seventeen days earlier, onetime Manson family member Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme had pointed a gun at Ford in Sacramento, but a Secret Service agent had grabbed her.

Outside the San Francisco hotel, a woman named Sara Jane Moore was standing next to Sipple. She raised a .38-caliber pistol and aimed it at the president. She evidently got off one shot at Ford, and missed, before Sipple, a former Marine, grabbed her arm and took her down.

The news coverage that ensued changed Sipple’s life, not for the better, and ultimately had a hand in making Americans confront their stereotypes about being "gay."

Sipple was known to San Francisco’s gay community, where he had taken part in some events, but he was not "out" to his family or to the larger world. News reports, including some in this paper, discussed his sexuality -- perhaps disclosed, some speculated, with a nudge from gay activist and future San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk (who would himself be assassinated in 1978).

Milk also opined that Sipple’s sexuality got him only a letter of thanks from Ford, rather than an invitation to the White House. The Times quoted Milk in 1989 about Sipple’s actions: "For once, we can show that gays do heroic things, not just all that ca-ca about molesting children and hanging out in bathrooms."

Sipple sued the San Francisco Chronicle’s Herb Caen and several newspapers for invasion of privacy, but his case was dismissed. By taking the action he did, the courts found, Sipple, and thus his sexual orientation, had become news.

Sipple’s mother never spoke to him again, and Sipple died in 1989.

Daniel Hernandez wasn’t even born when Oliver Sipple died. His heroism, too, is incontestable -- and  this time, his sexuality is apparently uncontroversial, which may be one of the few hopeful things to come out of these murders and attempted murders. At least we won’t add character assassination to the actual ones.

RELATED:

Shooting from the lip in reaction to Gabrielle Giffords tragedy

Dishonoring the Medal of Honor

-- Patt Morrison

Photo: Emergency personnel and Daniel Hernandez, second right, an intern for U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords,  move Giffords after she was shot in the head outside a shopping center in Tucson, Ariz., on Saturday. Credit: James Palka / Associated Press

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