LGBTQ+ History Month: Oliver Sipple

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Oliver Wellington “Billy” Sipple (November 20, 1941 – February 2, 1989) was a decorated U.S. Marine and Vietnam War veteran. On September 22, 1975, he grappled with Sara Jane Moore as she fired a pistol at U.S. President Gerald Ford in San Francisco, causing her to miss. The subsequent public revelation that Sipple was gay turned the news story into a cause célèbre for LGBT rights activists, leading Sipple to unsuccessfully sue several publishers for invasion of privacy.

Oliver Wellington Sipple was born in Detroit, Michigan. He served in the United States Marine Corps and fought in Vietnam. Shrapnel wounds suffered in December 1968 caused him to finish out his tour of duty in a Philadelphia veterans’ hospital, from which he was released in March 1970. Sipple, who was closeted in his hometown of Detroit, had met Harvey Milk in New York City and had participated in San Francisco’s gay pride parades and gay rights demonstrations. Sipple was active in local causes, including the historic political campaigns of openly gay Board of Supervisors candidate Milk.

He lived with a merchant seaman in a fourth-floor walk-up apartment located in San Francisco’s Mission District. He later spent six months in San Francisco’s VA hospital, and was frequently readmitted into the hospital in 1975, the year he saved Ford’s life.

Sipple was part of a crowd of about 3,000 people who had gathered outside San Francisco’s St. Francis Hotel to see President Ford on September 22, 1975. Standing beside Sipple in the crowd, was Sara Jane Moore. She was about 40 feet away from President Ford when she fired a single shot at him with a revolver, narrowly missing the President.   After realizing she had missed, she raised her arm again, and Sipple dived towards her and grabbed her arm, possibly saving President Ford’s life. Sipple said at the time, “I saw [her gun] pointed out there and I grabbed for it. […] I lunged and grabbed the woman’s arm and the gun went off.” The bullet ricocheted and hit John Ludwig, a 42-year-old taxi driver, who survived. Reporters hounded Sipple who at first did not want his name used, nor his location known.

The police and the Secret Service immediately commended Sipple for his action at the scene, as did the media. The national news media portrayed Sipple as a hero, and noted his status as a former Marine. Though he was known to be homosexual among members of the San Francisco gay community, and had even participated in gay pride events, Sipple’s sexual orientation was a secret from his family. He asked the press to keep such personal information off the record, making it clear that neither his mother nor his employer knew he was gay.

The day after the incident, Sipple was outed, by answering machine messages, to San Francisco Chronicle’s columnist Herb Caen. One was from Reverend Ray Broshears, the head of a gay activist group called the Lavender Panthers. The other message was from local gay activist Harvey Milk, a friend of Sipple and on whose campaign for city council Sipple had worked.   Milk outed Sipple in order to portray him as a “gay hero” and so to “break the stereotype of homosexuals” being “timid, weak and unheroic figures”. 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 from the President.

Two days after the thwarted assassination attempt, unable to reach Sipple, Caen wrote of Sipple as a gay man, and of a friend of Milk, speculating Ford offered praise “quietly” because of Sipple’s sexual orientation. Sipple was besieged by reporters, as was his family. His mother refused to speak to him. Gay liberation groups petitioned local media to give Sipple his due as a gay hero. Caen published the private side of the Marine’s story, as did a handful of other publications. Sipple then insisted to reporters that his sexuality was to be kept confidential.   Reporters labeled Sipple the “gay ex-Marine”, and his mother disparaged and disowned him.

Sipple sued the Chronicle, filing a $15-million invasion of privacy suit against Caen, seven named newspapers, and a number of unnamed publishers, for publishing the disclosures. The Superior Court in San Francisco dismissed the suit, and Sipple continued his legal battle until May 1984, when a state court of appeals held that Sipple had indeed become news, and that his sexual orientation was part of the story.

According to a 2006 article in The Washington Post, Sipple went through a period of estrangement with his parents, but the family later reconciled with him.   However, other sources indicate that Sipple’s parents never fully accepted him. When his mother died, his father did not allow him to attend her funeral. The incident brought him so much attention that, later in life, he expressed regret about grabbing Moore’s gun. On February 2, 1989, an acquaintance found Sipple dead in his San Francisco apartment. The San Francisco coroner estimated Sipple had been dead for approximately 10 days.   He was 47 years old. Sipple’s funeral was attended by about 30 people.   President Ford and his wife sent a letter of sympathy to his family and friends. He was buried in Golden Gate National Cemetery south of San Francisco.

In a 2001 interview with columnist Deb Price, Ford disputed the claim that Sipple was treated differently because of his sexual orientation, saying “As far as I was concerned, I had done the right thing and the matter was ended. I didn’t learn until sometime later – I can’t remember when – he was gay. I don’t know where anyone got the crazy idea I was prejudiced and wanted to exclude gays.”

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LGBTQ+ History Month: The Black Cat Tavern Raid

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The Black Cat Tavern was an LGBT bar, established in 1966, located at 3909 West Sunset Boulevard in the Sunset Junction neighborhood of the Silver Lake district in Los Angeles, California. It was the site of one of the first riots in the United States protesting police harassment of LGBT people, and it preceded the Stonewall riots by over two years.
 
On the night of New Year’s Day 1967, several plain-clothes LAPD police officers infiltrated the tavern. According to Tangents – a local gay newspaper – undercover police arrived and started beating patrons as they were ringing in the New Year. After arresting several patrons for kissing as they celebrated the occasion, the undercover police officers began beating several of the patrons and ultimately arrested fourteen patrons for “assault and public lewdness.” The police used deliberate and excessive force during the raid to carry out explicitly homophobic state legislation that prevented queer folks from kissing and/or engaging in any sexual acts, and wearing clothing that did not match their socially prescribed gender role. One of the patrons was aggressively beaten in the head by a cop wielding a pool cue.
 
This raid created a riot in the immediate area that expanded to include the bar across Sanborn Avenue called New Faces, where officers knocked down the owner, a woman, and beat two bartenders unconscious.
 
Several days later, this police action incited a civil demonstration of 200 attendees to protest the raids on February 11, 1967. The demonstration was organized by a group called PRIDE (Personal Rights in Defense and Education) – founded by Steve Ginsberg – and the SCCRH (Southern California Council on Religion and Homophile). The protest was met by squadrons of armed policemen.
 
Two of the men arrested for kissing were convicted under California Penal Code Section 647 and registered as sex offenders. The men appealed, asserting their right of equal protection under the law, but the U.S. Supreme Court did not accept their case.
 
It was from this event that the publication The Advocate began as a newspaper for PRIDE (Personal Rights in Defense and Education). Together the raid on the Black Cat Tavern and later the raid on The Patch in August 1968 inspired the formation of the Metropolitan Community Church.
 
On November 7, 2008, the site was declared a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument.
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LGBTQ+ History Month: Fannie Mae Clackum V. United States

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Fannie Mae Clackum V. United States
 
Fannie Mae Clackum (June 10, 1929 – August 16, 2014) was the first person to successfully challenge her discharge on the grounds of homosexuality from the U.S military.
Fannie Mae Clackum served as a US Air Force Reservist in the late 1940s and early 1950s. When the Air Force suspected her and Grace Garner of being lesbians, an arrangement was made for a four-person overnight trip and motel stay. The U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations used those events as the basis of a series of interrogations in April 1951 when the pair were accused of being lesbians. They refused to accept the dishonorable discharges the Air Force offered them and demanded a court-martial.
They were demoted from corporal to private, discharged in early 1952 and lived together in Marietta, Georgia. They spent eight years fighting their discharges in the US Court of Claims claiming denial of due process when denied courts-martial and discharged administratively. They prevailed in 1960 when the court invalidated the discharges and awarded them their back military pay for the remainder of their enlistment periods. The court, after recounting the Air Force’s account of its investigation, found it “unthinkable” that the Air Force would burden them with undesirable discharges “without respect for even the most elementary notions of due process of law”. Theirs is the earliest known case of the successful appeal of a discharge from the U.S. Armed Forces on grounds of homosexuality, though the case turned on due process claims, not homosexuality as the basis for their exclusion from military service.
 
Unfortunately, the only picture of Fannie Mae I could find is the one above, and its description is only ever referenced as “Female members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, (a.k.a WASPs) including Cpls. Fannie Mae Clackum and Grace Garner” but without being specific to which one is Fannie Mae. Sad.
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LGBTQ+ History Month: Cooper Do-nuts Riot

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The Cooper Do-nuts Riot was a May 1959 incident in Los Angeles in which transgender women, lesbian women, drag queens, and gay men rioted, one of the first LGBT uprisings in the United States. The incident was sparked by police harassment of LGBT people at a 24-hour cafe called “Cooper Do-nuts”.
 
The cafe was located on Main Street in the Skid Row neighborhood of downtown Los Angeles between two gay bars, Harold’s and the Waldorf, and was a popular hangout for transgender people. There had been many LGBT customers at Cooper’s taken into custody before, and on the day of the riot, two police officers entered the cafe and asked patrons for ID, as LA law dictated at the time that if a person’s gender presentation did not match the gender shown on their ID they were taken to jail. The officers attempted to arrest several people. One of those arrested was novelist John Rechy, who wrote of the event in his novel City of Night. In his novel, Rechy describes the victims of the Los Angeles Police Department’s abuse on this night as a culmination of routine targeting of the LGBTQ community, and describes the area as teeming with hustlers and transvestites, who were routinely arrested and locked up by the LAPD just for being seen together on the street or in a raided bar.
 
After the detainees protested the lack of room in the police car, onlookers began throwing coffee, cups, and trash at the police until they fled without the arrestees in their car. When the police returned a riot ensued that shut down Main Street for an entire day. People took to the streets and police backup arrived blocking off the street for the entire night and arresting several people.
 
That night is widely considered to be the first gay uprising in modern history, seven years before the Black Cat Riot in L.A.’s Silverlake neighborhood, and ten years before the Stonewall Rebellion.
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LGBTQ+ History Month: National Coming Out Day

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National Coming Out Day (NCOD) is observed annually, on October 11th, to celebrate coming out and to raise awareness of the LGBT community and civil rights movement. The first decades of observances were marked by private and public people coming out, often in the media, to raise awareness and let the mainstream know that everyone knows at least one person who is lesbian or gay.

NCOD was founded in 1988 by Robert Eichberg, a psychologist from New Mexico and founder of the personal growth workshop, The Experience, and Jean O’Leary, an openly lesbian political leader and long-time activist from New York, and (at the time) the head of the National Gay Rights Advocates in Los Angeles. They founded NCOD in order to promote visibility, maintain positivity, and celebrate coming out. The date of October 11 was chosen because it is the anniversary of the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.

The initial idea of NCOD was grounded in the feminist and gay liberation spirit of the personal being political. The foundational belief is that homophobia thrives in an atmosphere of silence and ignorance, and that once people know that they have loved ones who are lesbian or gay, they are far less likely to maintain homophobic or oppressive views.

After a media push in 1990 NCOD was observed in all 50 states and seven other countries. Participation continued to grow and in 1990 NCOD merged their efforts with the Human Rights Campaign.

In more recent years, the idea of the “lesbian and gay community” has been largely subsumed into the idea of the LGBTQ+ community, and the idea of “coming out” expanded to not only include the voluntary self-disclosure of a lesbian, gay, or bisexual sexual orientation, but also transgender, genderqueer, or other non-mainstream gender identity

National Coming Out Day is also observed in Ireland, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. In the United States, the Human Rights Campaign sponsors NCOD events under the auspices of their National Coming Out Project, offering resources to LGBT individuals, couples, parents, and children, as well as straight friends and relatives, to promote awareness of LGBT families living honest and open lives.

Postscript:

In honor of National Coming Out Day, Facebook has now added an option to Life Events: you can add “came out” to your profile and include your coming out story. This is the icon that accompanies it:

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LGBTQ+ History Month: One, Inc. v. Olesen

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One, Inc. v. Olesen (1958), is a landmark United States Supreme Court decision for LGBT rights in the United States. It was the first U.S. Supreme Court ruling to deal with homosexuality and the first to address free speech rights with respect to homosexuality.

ONE, Inc., a spinoff of the Mattachine Society, published the early pro-gay “ONE: The Homosexual Magazine” beginning in 1952.  After a campaign of harassment from the U.S. Post Office Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Los Angeles Postmaster Otto Olesen declared the October 1954 issue “obscene, lewd, lascivious and filthy” and therefore unmailable under the Comstock laws, a set of federal acts passed by the United States Congress under the Grant administration along with related state laws,which criminalized usage of the U.S. Postal Service to send any of the following items: obscenity; contraceptives; abortifacients; sex toys; personal letters with any sexual content or information; or any information regarding the above items.

In the October 1954 issue of One, Inc.,  the Post Office objected to several stories, including ”Sappho Remembered”, a story of a lesbian’s affection for a twenty-year-old “girl” who gives up her boyfriend to live with the lesbian, because it was “lustfully stimulating to the average homosexual reader”; “Lord Samuel and Lord Montagu”, a poem about homosexual cruising that it said contained “filthy words”; and (3) an advertisement for The Circle, a magazine containing homosexual pulp romance stories, that would direct the reader to other “obscene” material.

The magazine, represented by a young attorney who had authored the cover story in the October 1954 issue, Eric Julber, brought suit in U.S. District Court seeking an injunction against the Postmaster.

In March 1956, U.S. District Judge Thurmond Clarke ruled for the defendant. He wrote: “The suggestion advanced that homosexuals should be recognized as a segment of our people and be accorded special privilege as a class is rejected.”

A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision unanimously in February 1957.

Julber filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court on June 13, 1957.

On January 13, 1958, that court both accepted the case and, without hearing oral argument, issued a decision reversing the Ninth Circuit.

One, Inc. v. Olesen was the first U.S. Supreme Court ruling to deal with homosexuality and the first to address free speech rights with respect to homosexuality.

In its next issue, ONE told its readers: “For the first time in American publishing history, a decision binding on every court now stands. … affirming in effect that it is in no way proper to describe a love affair between two homosexuals as constitut(ing) obscenity.”

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LGBTQ+ History Month: Alan Turing

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Alan Mathison Turing was an English computer scientist, mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, philosopher, and theoretical biologist. Turing was highly influential in the development of theoretical computer science, providing a formalization of the concepts of algorithm and computation with the Turing machine, which can be considered a model of a general purpose computer. Turing is widely considered to be the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence. However, he was also a tragic figure: a hero who was never fully recognized in his home country during his lifetime due to his homosexuality, which was then a crime in the UK.

Turing played a pivotal role in cracking intercepted coded messages that enabled the Allies to defeat the Nazis in many crucial engagements and, in so doing, helped win the war. It has been estimated that this work shortened the war in Europe by more than two years and saved over fourteen million lives.

Turing was prosecuted in 1952 for homosexual acts, when “gross indecency” was a criminal offense in the UK. He accepted chemical castration treatment, with DES, as an alternative to prison. Turing died in 1954, 16 days before his 42nd birthday, from cyanide poisoning. An inquest determined his death as suicide, but it has been noted that the known evidence is also consistent with accidental poisoning.

In 2009, following an Internet campaign, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown made an official public apology on behalf of the British government for “the appalling way he was treated.” Queen Elizabeth II granted him a posthumous pardon in 2013. The Alan Turing law is now an informal term for a 2017 law in the United Kingdom that retroactively pardoned men cautioned or convicted under historical legislation that outlawed homosexual acts.

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LGBTQ+ History Month: The Mattachine Society

 

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The Mattachine Society founded in 1950, was one of the earliest LGBT organizations in the United States, probably second only to Chicago’s Society for Human Rights. Communist and labor activist Harry Hay formed the group with a collection of male friends in Los Angeles to protect and improve the rights of gay men. Branches formed in other cities and by 1961 the Society had splintered into regional groups.

This French group was named in turn after Mattaccino, a character in Italian theater. Mattaccino was a kind of court jester, who would speak the truth to the king when nobody else would. The “mattachin” (from Arabic mutawajjihin—”mask-wearers”) were originally Moorish (Hispano-Arab) sword-dancers who wore elaborate, colorful costumes and masks.

The Mattachine Society used so-called harlequin diamonds as their emblem. The design consisted of four diamonds arranged in a pattern to form a larger diamond.

During the 1960s, the various unaffiliated Mattachine Societies, especially the Mattachine Society in San Francisco and MSNY, were among the foremost gay rights groups in the United States, but beginning in the middle 1960s and, especially, following the Stonewall riots of 1969, they began increasingly to be seen as too traditional, and not willing enough to be confrontational. Like the divide that occurred within the Civil Rights Movement, the late 1960s and the 1970s brought a new generation of activists, many of whom felt that the gay rights movement needed to endorse a larger and more radical agenda to address other forms of oppression, the Vietnam War, and the sexual revolution. Several unaffiliated entities that went under the name Mattachine eventually lost support or fell prey to internal division.

In 2002, Mattachine Midwest was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame. A new Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C. was formed in 2011 and is dedicated to original archival research of LGBT political history.

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LGBTQ+ History Month: Annual Reminder Protests

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The Annual Reminders were a series of early pickets organized by homophile organizations. The Reminder took place each July 4 at Independence Hall in Philadelphia beginning in 1965 and were among the earliest LGBT demonstrations in the United States. The events were designed to inform and remind the American people that LGBT people did not enjoy basic civil rights protections.
 
The Reminders were held each year until 1969, with the final picket taking place shortly after the June 28 Stonewall riots, considered the flashpoint of the modern gay liberation movement. Reminder organizers decided to discontinue the July 4 pickets. Instead, they organized the Christopher Street Liberation Day held June 28, 1970, to commemorate the anniversary of the riot.
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LGBTQ+ History Month: Daughters of Bilitis

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The Daughters of Bilitis, also called the DOB or the Daughters, was the first lesbian civil and political rights organization in the United States. The organization, formed in San Francisco in 1955, was conceived as a social alternative to lesbian bars, which were subject to raids and police harassment.
 
Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon had been together as lovers for three years when they complained to a gay male couple that they did not know any other lesbians. The gay couple introduced Martin and Lyon to another lesbian couple, one of whom suggested they create a social club. In October 1955, eight women — four couples — met to provide each other with a social outlet. One of their priorities was to have a place to dance, as dancing with the same sex in a public place was illegal. Although unsure of how exactly to proceed with the group, they began to meet regularly, realized they should be organized, and quickly elected Martin as president.
 
As the DOB gained members, their focus shifted to providing support to women who were afraid to come out. The DOB educated them about their rights, and about gay history.
 
The name of the club was chosen in its second meeting. Bilitis is the name given to a fictional lesbian contemporary of Sappho, by the French poet Pierre Louÿs in his 1894 work The Songs of Bilitis, in which Bilitis lived on the Isle of Lesbos alongside Sappho. The name was chosen for its obscurity. “Daughters” was meant to evoke association with other American social associations such as the Daughters of the American Revolution. Early DOB members felt they had to follow two contradictory approaches: trying to recruit interested potential members and being secretive. Martin and Lyon justified the name, writing later, “If anyone asked us, we could always say we belong to a poetry club.” They also designed a pin to wear to be able to identify with others, chose club colors and voted on a motto “Qui vive”, French for “on alert”. The organization filed a charter for non-profit corporation status in 1957, writing a description so vague, Phyllis Lyon remembered, “it could have been a charter for a cat-raising club.”
 
The Daughters of Bilitis endured for 14 years, becoming an educational resource for lesbians, gay men, researchers and mental health professionals. It folded in 1970, although some local chapters still continue.
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