Orlando, Memories of the Ramrod, and Faith-Based Terrorism

We could have died in a spray of Uzi bullets. I was running late, but Glen Martin was already there, drinking a beer. Glen called from a pay phone as I was leaving my apartment. He was yelling with sirens in the background.

“Thank God you’re still home… Don’t come down here… They shot up the place with a machine gun… Bullets came through the door and windows… There’s blood everywhere… I saw Jörg bleeding on the sidewalk… I think they killed him… I don’t know how many more…”

Glen and I were 25. We were meeting at the Ramrod at midnight to begin his 26th birthday celebration.

Three men died and six more were injured when the son of a preacher went on a rampage with an Uzi and handguns in front of the Ramrod on West Street. It was Wednesday, November 19, 1980, a week before Thanksgiving.

Despite Glen’s admonition, I ran down there anyway. The police had blocked off the area. A number of gay men gathered on Christopher Street. Rumors were that more men were shot on West Street. We had no idea how many gunmen there were. Maybe it was a Mafia pay-off revenge hit? Could one of the teenage thugs from Carmine Street have gotten a gun and set about proving his manhood?

Turns out the killer was the son of a Christian preacher, a married father with two kids, a man with a history of drug and alcohol addiction. Ronald Crumpley also claimed his thoughts were being haunted by homosexual ghosts. His preacher father had counseled the homophobic Crumpley a couple of days earlier that maybe he “had a homosexual problem himself.”

So the son stole his dad’s car, drove through the night to Virginia, robbed a gun store, returned to New York with the two semiautomatic pistols as well as a .357 magnum revolver and the Uzi.

If he had known how to fire semiautomatic assault weapons, Ronald Krump could have killed 100 or more men.

I’m 61 now, and 36 years later the violence continues.

This time it’s 49 dead, more seriously injured. Now, however, the nation and the world are in shock. In 1980, the Ramrod shooting was barely mentioned in the local news sections of the daily papers.

Orlando is a travesty that might have been avoided with serious gun restrictions.

But the root cause is not immigration, FBI checks, ISIL cells, or the Muslim faith.

It is more universal. This violence is fueled by faith-based homophobia.

As more is revealed, it appears as if Omar Mateen may have been leading two lives. One as a religious married father who took his son to prayer services. The other, a man — gay, bisexual, questioning? — who over the years traveled more than 100 miles to join those enjoying our hard-fought rights to dance and commune freely.

The facts of the two cases suggest the possibility that both Ronald Crumpley and Omar Mateen were closet cases whose internalized homophobia, informed by the culture they were raised in, caused them to kill those who lived freely.

What makes my husband, Bob Gibbons, and me cry are the readings of the names — most were in their 20s and 30s, young men and women, Latino, Latina, African-American, Asian, white, multi-racial, gay, transgender, bi, maybe straight, fluid, whatever.

Despite our tears, we are also given hope. Up here in the Catskills, more than 100 people gathered the night of the shooting in uptown Kingston, at the corner of Wall Street and Front Street with flowers and candles for the Orlando victims and survivors.

The following day, June 13, the LGBTQ Center in Ulster County opened its doors and windows as more than 250 gathered inside and on the sidewalk to remember those we had never met.

Among the tributes was a sing-along to a song by Holly Near, one of the first out lesbian performers in the ‘70s. Beginning with one singer, we all joined in with “We are a gentle, angry people, singing, singing for our lives…”

My husband Bob protested at the Stonewall the day after the Rebellion there started in June 1969. We were both active in responding to AIDS before it was even named. And though we didn’t know each other yet, we were both among the hundreds of other gay men as well as lesbians at a memorial at the Ramrod on Thursday, November 20, 1980.

Last week, I looked up the names of those who died on November 19, 1980. They were young, just a few years older than the legal drinking age — Vernon Koenig, age 24; Rene Malute, age 23; and Jörg Wenz, age 21.

Glen and I knew Jörg. He was a six-foot, six-inch sinewy blond German, with size 13 boots. Jörg worked at the Ramrod as the door guard, admitting men wearing proper leather and jeans gear and keeping watch for the fag bashers.

Jörg’s photo was on the boarded-up Ramrod door the night we left the flowers. Thirty-six years later, the roses we left for the Orlando victims and survivors were also placed for Jörg — and Vernon and Rene, too.

Tim Gay, who was the Democratic district leader in Chelsea from 1992 to 2005, and his husband, Bob Gibbons, live in the Catskill Forest somewhere west of Woodstock and Mombaccus Mountain.