Stonewall Uprising 55 Years Later: “I WAS THERE.”

A Pittsburgher told his first-hand account of the 1969 riots at the Stonewall Inn.

Edward Noel Ryan. Photo by Mara Rago.

In the early morning hours of Saturday, June 28, 1969, the spark that ignited the LGBTQ rights movement and the annual Pride marches and celebrations was lit at the Stonewall Uprising. LGBTQ icons like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera helped launch a movement.

The following article recounts the story of Edward Ryan, who came to Pittsburgh in 2004. He was there that night and was witness to history.

The following article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Equal Magazine. Help us preserve Pittsburgh’s LGBTQ history, like this article, by contributing to our GoFundMe.

Edward Noel Ryan passed away on November 1, 2015, in Pittsburgh according to his nephew Patrick. His ashes were spread on the slopes of Mount Helena in his beloved Montana.

Edward Ryan is an unassuming convivial man, a man at the forefront of the gay rights movement. Ryan, now living at a supportive long-term care facility in East Liberty, recalls the night he was arrested at the seminal evening that began the Stonewall riots in June, 1969.

The Stonewall riots began when a Greenwich Village gay bar, The Stonewall Inn, was raided in the wee hours of June 28, 1969. It is widely considered the spark that ignited the modern LGBTQ rights movement. Ryan was there. In his memoir, “An Old Man Lost in the Forest of Memory,” Ryan recounts the fateful events that began the movement (then referred to as the gay liberation movement). His memoir omitted some historical details, in favor of a personal account of the events.

At the time, Ryan was a library assistant for Time Magazine. He lived his life as straight, but he said, “I worked at Time Magazine and there were editors, writers, and staff who were gay. We all knew each other, but we didn’t talk about it.”

Edward Noel Ryan. Photo by Mara Rago.

At the time, there were few places where people could be openly gay. New York laws prohibited homosexuality in public. Private businesses and gay establishments were regularly raided and shut down.

On the weekends, he used to carouse with his friend, whom he dubbed Raunchy Jim. Raunchy Jim lived, as we would say in modern parlance, on the down-low. He was married and spent alternate weekends with Ryan. He said, “Raunchy Jim’s wife went to Connecticut to visit her mom. That’s when the fun would begin.”

Ryan and Raunchy began a hedonistic weekend, smoking, drinking beer, and going to an off-Broadway musical. The two capped off their night at the dark, secluded Stonewall Inn. Ryan writes a depiction of the evening in his memoir: “The Stonewall Inn is a mafia bar on a popular street in the Village. I had to be careful as the senior editor for Time lived just down the block. By one a.m., the Stonewall was busy with the gay crowd from all parts of New York. There were guys in suits, drag queens, and a fair amount of teenagers. I was carrying on with a cute college kid and Raunchy went off with two drag queens in the center of the dance floor. We were all boogying. Suddenly the lights go on throughout the bar.” He remembers thinking, “It’s too early for closing time.”

The police raided the bar. He writes, “They were circling the dance floor holding their guns, shouting and pushing everyone toward the front door.”

Police in riot gear and a thousand queer men and women all shouting “Gay liberation!”

In the memoir, he recounts that the bartender faced off against the crowd of police. The bartender shouted, “This is a public tavern!” The police responded, shouting back, “You’re serving liquor without a license and serving it to minors.”

Ryan was pushed along with forty to fifty other patrons. He was escorted into a crowded paddy wagon. He shouted for his friend, Raunchy Jim, who got lost in the crowd. Ryan yelled “Lousy cops!” to the arresting officers.

Christopher Street was crowded with onlookers, mostly with queer women and men from the nearby bars. He writes, “Groups from the leather bars, the dancey fashion clubs, teen queens, and lots of men and women who lived their lives publicly straight, like me, crowded the street.”

He was brought to the Sixth Precinct. The police searched his pockets and found his Time Magazine identification badge. They got nervous passing the ID around, fearing the repercussions of media involvement in the story.

He writes, “I said, ‘I need your names.’ I was rather cheery. The next moment was not cheery but swift. They walked me to the door of the Sixth Precinct and say, “Get your ass out of here!” They gave me a shove and I tumbled down the six steps to the street. Nothing is broken, but I am sore from head to foot.”

He writes, “After I was arrested, I went back to the Village. Back to the Stonewall, which is now in a full riot. The Gay Revolution began.”

The writer recalls hundreds of police in riot gear and a thousand queer men and women all shouting “Gay liberation!” The riot continued for days throughout New York City. Ryan said, “Things eventually calmed down. Nothing happened all winter, but in the summer, we had the parade.”

One year later, a parade was held to commemorate the occasion. It was the beginning of the Pride parades now held each year throughout the summer months, all over the world.

“Harvey was always bullshitting with someone. We all voted for him.”

After Raunchy Jim’s job took him to Los Angeles, he lost touch with his secret paramour. Ryan, disillusioned with New York, moved to San Francisco where he worked in a law library and wrote gay fiction on the side. Ryan wrote under the nom de plume Noel Ryan (using his middle name because there was another established author named Edward Ryan at the time) and his stories have appeared in the Village Voice, two Christopher Street Anthologies, an anthology titled, “Men on Men,” and in the Manifest Reader, which was awarded first prize for fiction.

In the late 80s, twenty years after the first parade, Ryan was living in San Francisco. He and eleven other witnesses from the Stonewall riots led the parade. A million people stood on the streets of San Francisco watching him march. It was a proud moment.

Screenshot of the 1989 San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Freedom Day Parade video.

Ten years ago, Ryan was on a bus heading to Montana from a visit to NYC when he had a stroke. He was hospitalized in Pittsburgh. After his hospital stay, his brother, a doctor, recommended he be placed at the Angelis, a long-term care facility where he could convalesce.

Ryan said, “I’d never been to Pittsburgh before. I was just going through it when I had the stroke.” He remains here with the hope of returning to Montana someday. In the meantime, the author plans to finish his book, “An Old Man Lost in the Forest of Memory.”

He has many great tales about his life as a gay man in the burgeoning gay rights movement, including his memories of Harvey Milk. Ryan laughed, “Harvey was always bullshitting with someone. We all voted for him.”

Michael Buzzelli is a stand-up comedian and sit-down author. As a comedian, he has performed all around the country, most notably, the Ice House, the Comedy Store and the Improv in Los Angeles. As a writer, Michael Buzzelli has been published in a variety of websites, magazines and newspapers. He is a theater and arts critic for 'Burgh Vivant,’ Pittsburgh's online cultural talk magazine. He is also a Moth Grand Slam storyteller and actor. His books, "Below Average Genius," a collection of essays culled from his weekly humor column in the Observer-Reporter, and his romantic comedy,  “All I Want for Christmas," are on sale at Amazon.com. He is working on a LGBTQ romantic comedy called, “Why I Hate My Friends.” You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter. (He / Him / His)