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The Stonewall Riot: “I WAS THERE.”

Local Pittsburgher tells his first-hand account of The 1969 riots at the Stonewall Inn.

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 LGBT 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 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.”

At the time, there were not many 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 dope, 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 to own wild version of the music. 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 gay 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 gay men from the nearby bars. He writes, “Groups from the leather bars, the dance-y 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 gay 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.

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.”

The Rainbow Connection

On June 27, 1969, at the Frank Campbell Funeral Home in Manhattan, singer, movie star and gay icon, Judy Garland was laid to rest. That same night, the police raided the Stonewall Inn, a seedy, mafia-run gay bar in the West Village. Coincidence? Maybe. Maybe not.

There are many conflicting reports about the night of June 27, 1969. Several drag queens take credit for inciting the riot. There are reports that claim a drag queen threw her high heel at a police officer. Others claim it was a shot glass, “a shot glass heard around the world.” Others claim “Drag Queen Zero” threw loose change at the arresting officers.

Whatever the implement of choice, many people believe that grief about the beloved film star Judy Garland caused gay men, lesbians and drag queens to take a stand.

At the time, discrimination against gays and lesbians was rampant. It was illegal for homosexuals to congregate in public, or to be served alcohol. Additionally, there were some strange laws on the books at the time. A person must be wearing three items of gender specific clothing at all times. Many drag queens flagrantly violated this arcane rule.

When the police raided the Stonewall Inn, a crowd of four hundred patrons gathered on the street outside and watched the officers arrest the bartender, the doorman, and a few drag queens. Years of pent up hostility rose to the surface. The crowd grew exponentially, becoming over two thousand strong, chanting “Gay Power!”

Soon, beer bottles and trash cans went flying. By four am, the streets calmed. But the next night, the crowd returned, even larger than the night before. For two hours, protesters rioted in the street outside of the Stonewall Inn until the police sent a riot-control squad to disperse the crowd.

On the first night alone, thirteen people (including Edward Ryan) were arrested and four police officers were injured. At least two rioters claimed to be severely beaten by the police and many more sustained cuts, bruises and other injuries. The riots lasted four days, and the modern LGBT movement began.

On November 2, 1969, Craig Rodwell, gay rights activist and founder of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop, his partner Fred Sargeant, Ellen Broidy and Linda Rhodes proposed the first gay pride parade in New York City the following summer.

Every summer we celebrate pride and honor of those brave men and women who took a stand against harassment, hatred and discrimination. Like Garland’s iconic character Dorothy Gale, were in once trapped in drab, colorless place and now we are somewhere over the rainbow. That might be why the rainbow is our symbol of hope, equality and peace.

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)