Why does it matter that Giffords' heroic intern is gay?


Daniel Hernandez, the intern who is credited with saving Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' life, received two waves of attention in the aftermath of the tragic shootings: The first for his fast thinking and aid to Giffords after she was shot, and the second when The Dallas Voice broke the news that the 20-year-old was gay.

The news was broken as a proud celebration, an affirmation that gay people are proud and active citizens, even in the home state of anti-gay figurehead Sen. John McCain. But this celebration is a stark contrast to the case of another gay hero 36 years ago.

Oliver Sipple, a Detroiter, was the U.S. Marine and Vietnam War vet who was credited with saving President Gerald R. Ford's life during an assassination attempt in September 1975. It was the second such attempt that year. Sipple was in a crowd, watching Ford leave a hotel in San Francisco, when a woman close to him pulled out a gun and began firing. Sipple grabbed the gun, diverting the shot. A local taxi driver was grazed with the bullet and survived.

Sipple, a gay activist, was hailed as a hero. But he wasn't out to his family, or his employer, so he requested that the media not report on his sexuality. A week after the assassination attempt, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Sipple was gay and a close friend of Harvey Milk. Other papers followed suit.

After his unwilling outing, Sipple was estranged from his family. He received a thank-you letter from the White House, but Milk assumed Sipple's gayness prevented him from getting an invitation to meet the president in person. In 1979, Sipple filed a $15 million lawsuit against the seven papers who outed him. After a five-year battle, the lawsuit was dismissed.

The Washington Post interviewed Sipple's brother and friends in 2006 about the hero. Sipple likely suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after his war tour, and after his unwilling and national outing, drank heavily. He died in 1989.

In 2011, the gayness of a hero is applauded- or even just shrugged off. Comments on websites such as The Huffington Post and The Dallas Voice question the need to describe Hernandez as gay. But back in 1975, the gayness of a hero was a perplexing distraction and cause, as the Post put it, for Sipple and his family to "be hounded" by reporters.

Things are different today. Hernandez's life, and his label as a hero, isn't negatively affected by the public knowledge of his sexuality. In fact, Hernandez sat next to the First Family during the memorial service for the victims of the shooting last week. And during his speech, President Barack Obama specifically pointed to Hernandez as a hero -not because he was gay, or in spite of his being gay, but because he is a true hero, and that was the only thing that mattered.

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