Retired New York firefighter comes out in his obituary: ‘I was gay all my life’

As It Happens5:46Retired New York firefighter comes out in his obituary: ‘I was gay all my life’

Linda Sargent says she hopes her beloved Uncle Ed has finally found peace after coming out as gay in his obituary.

Edward Thomas Ryan, an 85-year-old retired volunteer firefighter and veterans’ advocate from Rensselaer, N.Y., wrote in his obituary, published this week in the Albany Times-Union: “I was gay all my life.”

“I’m sorry for not having the courage to come out as gay. I was afraid of being ostracized: by family, friends, and co-workers. Seeing how people like me were treated, I just could not do it,” he wrote.

“Now that my secret is known, I’ll forever rest in peace.”

Sargent, who had long known her uncle’s secret, was moved by his words.

“I was like, ‘you go, Uncle Ed,'” she told As It Happens host Nil Köksal. 

Black and white image of a little boy in a sailor's uniform, smiling and waving an American flag
Ryan as a child. In his obituary, he said he knew he was gay since childhood, but feared being ostracized by friends and family. (Submitted by Edward Sargent)

Ryan was a retired firefighter, a radio station founder and decorated colonel with the New York Guard, a state volunteer defence force that assists the National Guard in times of emergency. 

His family says he also served in Vietnam, but never saw combat. He was a member of several charities that help Vietnam war veterans. 

“Col. Ryan’s story is a powerful reminder of the struggles many LGBTQ+ service members have faced,” Rachel Branaman, executive director of Modern Military Association of America, a network of 2SLGBTQ+ military members and their families, told CBC in an email.

“His courage in sharing his truth, even posthumously, is a testament to the need for continued advocacy and support for LGBTQ+ individuals in all walks of life, including the military.”

A man in military fatigues talks on a landline phone in a room full of computers, T  screens and wires hanging from the ceilings.
Ryan was a colonel in the New York Guard, a volunteer state defence force. (Submitted by Edward Sargent)

Sargent described her uncle as a “wonderful man” who “helped and gave to people.” He was also, she said, a private person who “didn’t get close to too many people.” 

But she always had a special relationship with him, she said, helping him with his volunteer work and bringing him to his doctors’ appointments.

“He was my uncle. He was my best friend. He’s like my father,” she said. “I was blessed.”

Ryan never told most of his relatives that he was gay, Sargent said, though it was something of an open secret in the family. But she says he told her more than a decade ago.

“I knew he had his obituary ready for years. And then he asked me probably about 15 years ago, ‘Should I put down that I’m gay and let the world know, so I can be at peace?'” she said.

“I said to my uncle, ‘You do what you need to do.'”

‘A loving and caring relationship’ 

In his obituary, Ryan reveals that, despite being in the closet, he was not alone. 

“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,” he wrote. “Paul died in 1994 from a medical procedure gone wrong. I’ll be buried next to Paul.”

Sergeant says she knew about Cavagnaro, but never met him. Her uncle would bring women as dates to events, and he always left his partner behind when he visited the family for the holidays.

Four men in uniforms, one holding a medal in an open jewelry box.
Ryan, second from right, received several awards during his life for his volunteer service. (Submitted by Edward Sargent)

But the couple often appeared at Cavagnaro family events together, Cavagnaro’s nephew Chris Maloy told the Washington Post.

“Their relationship was understood within our family, even if it wasn’t openly discussed,” he told the newspaper, adding that they were a “lovely couple.”

Maloy described his late uncle as charming and fun, and says he worked as bartender at Albany’s only gay bar.

He said Ryan went by “Ed” with his family and colleagues, but used “Tom” with Cavagnaro’s family and friends. The couple drove separate vehicles and lived in the countryside so Ryan could maintain appearances. 

When Cavagnaro died, Sargent says her uncle was bereft.

“He never got another soulmate or nothing,” she said. “He just, you know, kind of kept to himself.”

A painting of a man in a military uniform
Ryan wrote in his obituary that, by finally coming out, he would be able to rest in peace. (

When Ryan first came out to Sargent, she says he expressed concern that he would be judged.

“I was like, ‘There’s nothing to be ashamed of,'” Sargent said. “It’s not God that’s judging us for being gay or whatever. It’s the country. It’s the people in the world.”

She hopes that, in death, her uncle has finally found the peace he’d been looking for all his life.

“We’re all God’s children,” she said. “I just wish that I can see him up in heaven with his friend, you know, sitting down in a paradise, having dinner together.”

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