85-year-old veteran comes out as gay in viral obituary?> (2024)

Edward Thomas Ryan was 85 when he died on June 1 in Albany, New York. Retired from a career in service — as a U.S. Army colonel, in his community's fire department, American Legion, VFW, Knights of Columbus, Elks — his self-penned obituary starts with a catalog of his participation and his honors. It is extensive and laudatory. The citation for his Conspicuous Service Cross from the New York Division of Military and Naval Affairs mentions Ryan's "Loyalty, Diligence and Devotion to Duty." But that is not why Eddie Ryan's obituary went viral in Albany and then was picked up nationally, including Thursday morning by the "Today" show.The fifth of six paragraphs of the obituary reads, "Edward wanted to share the following: 'I must tell you one more thing. I was Gay all my life: thru grade school, thru High School, thru College, thru Life.'"The psychological toll of a lifetime in the closet, written by a man facing the end of his, seemed to resonate widely, whether from members of LGBTQ communities, who know the experience firsthand or those sufficiently empathetic to understand even a small part of what it must mean to hide an essential part of oneself for eight and a half decades. Coming as it did on June 8, in the first week of Pride Month, gave Ryan's obituary a more powerful impact."Heartbreaking" and "tragic" are two of the most common words used when the obituary is shared on Facebook. Others say, "This is why we still need Pride Month."The manifold factors that go into a decision to publicly identify, or not, as other than cisgender and straight are unique to each individual. But the general outlines of Ryan's life suggest a nexus of pressures that likely combined to make him feel the only acceptable choice was to remain closeted about being gay, said Rocky Bonsal, a psychotherapist for 32 years whose client base is now about 50% LGBTQ. He did not treat or know Ryan and was discussing some of the issues involved based on what he read in the obituary and elsewhere. Video below: Pride Month: What is an ally?Ryan came from a large Irish-Catholic family with a 200-year history in Rensselaer. Many had connections to the fire department. Born before World War II started, he was in the military in the 1960s, a time when being "ostracized," as he wrote in his obituary, would be just the beginning of the fallout; in those years, open hom*osexuality was grounds for a dishonorable discharge and likely loss of reputation and benefits, including pension.He was then a fire truck driver for the Rensselaer Fire Department for years, sleeping at the firehouse multiple days a week. As a member of the National Guard and of many tradition-bound organizations linked to the military and veterans, including as a chef running a catering business out of the Melvin Roads American Legion Post 1231 in East Greenbush, Ryan likely felt he risked fracturing or severing relationships if he discussed being gay, Bonsal said."The trauma of being closeted has to do with not trusting the world around you to be supportive and welcome you," Bonsal said. "But based on evidence that you've seen of how other (LGBTQ) people in those groups have been treated, you're not willing to subject yourself to that.""It's also a big generational thing," said Tandra LaGrone, CEO of In Our Own Voices, a New York-based organization dedicated to supporting BIPOC LGBTQ communities that has a group called Life After 50 for older members. Lengthy periods of being closeted is not uncommon for older generations, according to LaGrone, who said she knows a number of people, including some in long-term same-sex relationships, who choose not to discuss their private lives.LaGrone, who did not know Ryan, said, "One of the generational legacies for older people is shame. We carry that with us. If he believed coming out would cause shame to his family, the military, the fire department, you can start to understand why he felt he could be true about his authentic self, who he was and who he loved."Ryan loved and was loved. His obituary says, "I was in a loving and caring relationship with Paul Cavagnaro of North Greenbush. He was the love of my life. We had 25 great years together." Ryan wrote that Cavagnaro died in 1994 of a medical procedure "gone wrong." For some of his family, Ryan's being gay and partnered was an open secret."He was very private, but we knew. It just wasn't something we talked about," said niece Linda Sargent.Ryan, the last of six Ryan siblings to die, was the "best uncle I ever had," said Cathy Stammel."I knew (he was gay) probably 40 years ago. I knew (Cavagnaro) was his partner. They were a loving couple. I admired that," said Stammel. "But I promised him I wouldn't say anything and I kept that promise. It was up to him to talk about it when he was ready."Around the firehouse, "Ed was meticulous — never a hair out of place," said the current Rensselaer Fire Department chief, William Brooking. More than 35 years Ryan's junior, Brooking grew up with one of Ryan's great-nephews and remembers Ryan from boyhood visits to the firehouse and in later years.A skilled driver, Ryan was old-school enough to stick his head out of the truck's window while backing it into the station. "He'd always have a few choice words when he was doing it," said Brooking. The chief said he was aware Ryan was gay, but it wasn't discussed."It didn't bother me, but I don't know how the old male macho fire service would have felt about it back then," said Brooking.Thomas Tiernan agrees."I'd like to think we would have accepted people for who they were, but I just don't know," said Tiernan, who started with the Rensselaer Fire Department in 1964, served alongside Ryan from 1971 until Ryan's retirement in the mid-1980s and continued himself to serve for another decade.But Tiernan, and Rensselaer Mayor Mike Stammel, who is married to Kathy Stammel and was an officer in the fire department, agree that Ryan was well-liked and well-respected."He was always ready to lend a hand or to give advice," Mike Stammel said."He fit in very well," said Tiernan, who recalled that Ryan's signature phrase, "Piece of cake," originated with his first fire call with the company."We told him, 'Don't be nervous. We've got this.' After we put out the fire, he said, 'With you guys, that was a piece of cake.' He said that for years after."Overall, Tiernan said, "Everybody liked him." Cathy Stammel said, "He spent his whole life helping people. They knew they could count on him for that."She said, "I don't really know why he was never comfortable talking about (being gay). I always felt people would have loved him either way." In the last lines of his obituary written in his own words, Ryan says, "I'm sorry for not having the courage to come out as Gay. … Now that my secret is known, I'll forever Rest in Peace."

Edward Thomas Ryan was 85 when he died on June 1 in Albany, New York.

Retired from a career in service — as a U.S. Army colonel, in his community's fire department, American Legion, VFW, Knights of Columbus, Elks — his self-penned obituary starts with a catalog of his participation and his honors. It is extensive and laudatory. The citation for his Conspicuous Service Cross from the New York Division of Military and Naval Affairs mentions Ryan's "Loyalty, Diligence and Devotion to Duty."

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But that is not why Eddie Ryan's obituary went viral in Albany and then was picked up nationally, including Thursday morning by the "Today" show.

The fifth of six paragraphs of the obituary reads, "Edward wanted to share the following: 'I must tell you one more thing. I was Gay all my life: thru grade school, thru High School, thru College, thru Life.'"

The psychological toll of a lifetime in the closet, written by a man facing the end of his, seemed to resonate widely, whether from members of LGBTQ communities, who know the experience firsthand or those sufficiently empathetic to understand even a small part of what it must mean to hide an essential part of oneself for eight and a half decades. Coming as it did on June 8, in the first week of Pride Month, gave Ryan's obituary a more powerful impact.

"Heartbreaking" and "tragic" are two of the most common words used when the obituary is shared on Facebook. Others say, "This is why we still need Pride Month."

The manifold factors that go into a decision to publicly identify, or not, as other than cisgender and straight are unique to each individual. But the general outlines of Ryan's life suggest a nexus of pressures that likely combined to make him feel the only acceptable choice was to remain closeted about being gay, said Rocky Bonsal, a psychotherapist for 32 years whose client base is now about 50% LGBTQ. He did not treat or know Ryan and was discussing some of the issues involved based on what he read in the obituary and elsewhere.

Video below: Pride Month: What is an ally?

Ryan came from a large Irish-Catholic family with a 200-year history in Rensselaer. Many had connections to the fire department. Born before World War II started, he was in the military in the 1960s, a time when being "ostracized," as he wrote in his obituary, would be just the beginning of the fallout; in those years, open hom*osexuality was grounds for a dishonorable discharge and likely loss of reputation and benefits, including pension.

He was then a fire truck driver for the Rensselaer Fire Department for years, sleeping at the firehouse multiple days a week. As a member of the National Guard and of many tradition-bound organizations linked to the military and veterans, including as a chef running a catering business out of the Melvin Roads American Legion Post 1231 in East Greenbush, Ryan likely felt he risked fracturing or severing relationships if he discussed being gay, Bonsal said.

"The trauma of being closeted has to do with not trusting the world around you to be supportive and welcome you," Bonsal said. "But based on evidence that you've seen of how other (LGBTQ) people in those groups have been treated, you're not willing to subject yourself to that."

"It's also a big generational thing," said Tandra LaGrone, CEO of In Our Own Voices, a New York-based organization dedicated to supporting BIPOC LGBTQ communities that has a group called Life After 50 for older members. Lengthy periods of being closeted is not uncommon for older generations, according to LaGrone, who said she knows a number of people, including some in long-term same-sex relationships, who choose not to discuss their private lives.

LaGrone, who did not know Ryan, said, "One of the generational legacies for older people is shame. We carry that with us. If he believed coming out would cause shame to his family, the military, the fire department, you can start to understand why he felt he could be true about his authentic self, who he was and who he loved."

Ryan loved and was loved. His obituary says, "I was in a loving and caring relationship with Paul Cavagnaro of North Greenbush. He was the love of my life. We had 25 great years together." Ryan wrote that Cavagnaro died in 1994 of a medical procedure "gone wrong."

For some of his family, Ryan's being gay and partnered was an open secret.

"He was very private, but we knew. It just wasn't something we talked about," said niece Linda Sargent.

Ryan, the last of six Ryan siblings to die, was the "best uncle I ever had," said Cathy Stammel.

"I knew (he was gay) probably 40 years ago. I knew (Cavagnaro) was his partner. They were a loving couple. I admired that," said Stammel. "But I promised him I wouldn't say anything and I kept that promise. It was up to him to talk about it when he was ready."

Around the firehouse, "Ed was meticulous — never a hair out of place," said the current Rensselaer Fire Department chief, William Brooking. More than 35 years Ryan's junior, Brooking grew up with one of Ryan's great-nephews and remembers Ryan from boyhood visits to the firehouse and in later years.

A skilled driver, Ryan was old-school enough to stick his head out of the truck's window while backing it into the station. "He'd always have a few choice words when he was doing it," said Brooking. The chief said he was aware Ryan was gay, but it wasn't discussed.

"It didn't bother me, but I don't know how the old male macho fire service would have felt about it back then," said Brooking.

Thomas Tiernan agrees.

"I'd like to think we would have accepted people for who they were, but I just don't know," said Tiernan, who started with the Rensselaer Fire Department in 1964, served alongside Ryan from 1971 until Ryan's retirement in the mid-1980s and continued himself to serve for another decade.

But Tiernan, and Rensselaer Mayor Mike Stammel, who is married to Kathy Stammel and was an officer in the fire department, agree that Ryan was well-liked and well-respected.

"He was always ready to lend a hand or to give advice," Mike Stammel said.

"He fit in very well," said Tiernan, who recalled that Ryan's signature phrase, "Piece of cake," originated with his first fire call with the company.

"We told him, 'Don't be nervous. We've got this.' After we put out the fire, he said, 'With you guys, that was a piece of cake.' He said that for years after."

Overall, Tiernan said, "Everybody liked him."

Cathy Stammel said, "He spent his whole life helping people. They knew they could count on him for that."

She said, "I don't really know why he was never comfortable talking about (being gay). I always felt people would have loved him either way."

In the last lines of his obituary written in his own words, Ryan says, "I'm sorry for not having the courage to come out as Gay. … Now that my secret is known, I'll forever Rest in Peace."

85-year-old veteran comes out as gay in viral obituary?> (2024)

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