On its face renaming San Francisco International Airport after slain gay rights activist and former city council member Harvey Milk makes total sense. In a city known worldwide as a “gay mecca,” it was Milk who in many ways led that charge.

The council will meet Tuesday to vote on the proposal, which right now looks likely to fail.

Still, as a homosexual black man and a native of the city, my own life’s journey has drawn inspiration from other sources apart from Milk, names not as well recognized though no less meaningful.


Oliver Sipple is one such person.

On September 22, 1975, the former marine and decorated Vietnam veteran saved the life of President Gerald R. Ford outside the St. Francis Hotel at Union Square in San Francisco. Sipple was part of a crowd of 200 onlookers trying to get a glimpse of the president. He noticed the would-be assassin, Sarah Jane Moore pull a gun out of her purse and aim it at the president. He then lunged for and held on to her arm as it discharged.

Twenty-four hours later, Milk, the SF Chronicle and its iconic columnist, the late Herb Caen outed Sipple, a private man, against his wishes. The result: of all places, the city of San Francisco, Sipple’s hometown of Detroit and even his parents turned against him as news agencies began to report that it was a homosexual that had saved the life of the president.

God does not roll like that.

A signed thank you note from the president did little to console a man rejected by his family and by society at large.

Entering my teenage years, I was overwhelmed by a flood of negative emotions that I believed then to be tied to my sexuality and to the fact that I am disabled. I grew ashamed, feeling I was seen as somehow less of a man.

Thirty years later, however, that sense of shame was lifted as I came to know of Sipple’s story and those of others whose lives and achievements demonstrated the heights that one could climb, in spite of the rejection.

In 1963, civil rights activist Bayard Rustin helped to organize the now famous March on Washington in which Dr. Martin Luter King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. An openly gay black man, there were many who opposed his central role in organizing the event. His legacy today is one that should resonate throughout the black community, where homophobia still runs deep.

Supervisor David Campos, who first put forward the idea of renaming SFO International, deserves credit for a good idea. In a world where 77 countries still enforce laws against homosexuality -- some carrying the death penalty -- and where evangelical ministers proudly tout their “God hates fags” signs, renaming SFO after an openly gay man would bring greater attention to how San Francisco answers intolerance.

That answer, for me, begins with Oliver Sipple, a man few have heard of but whose life helped transform the life of this writer. For the millions traveling through SFO every year, one can only imagine the possibilities. All they have to do is ask, “Who is he?”

Allen Jones, 56, is a prison reform activist and a native of San Francsico. His work has appeared in the SF Bayview and the San Francisco Chronicle.