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Raymond Castro played key role in 1969 Stonewall rebellion

MADEIRA BEACH — In the late 1960s, just being openly gay in America was a crime in many places. Authorities prohibited gay men and women from displaying any of the affections heterosexuals enjoyed — from kissing or dancing with each other or even holding hands.

New York was no exception, but there was one primary refuge: the Stonewall Inn, marked by a now-famous wooden door beneath a brick archway.

On June 28, 1969, police raided the Stonewall — the third raid on gay bars in Greenwich Village over a two-week period, according to news accounts.

This time the crowd fought back. As some patrons were detained or herded to police wagons, hundreds of sympathetic bystanders hurled rocks, bottles and beer cans at officers. Some even used uprooted parking meters as missiles. Drag queens clubbed police with purses and fists.

In the center of the melee was Raymond Castro, a baker whose tussle with police incited a volatile crowd at a key moment, sparking six days of rioting and a creating a major turning point in the fight for gay rights.

Mr. Castro was arrested, but the charge was dropped. He resumed a quiet life, moving to Madeira Beach in 1989. Over the years, historians increasingly cited Stonewall as a watershed event in American culture, gaining Mr. Castro a revered status he had never sought.

Mr. Castro, who became an unwitting symbol of equal rights for gay people, died Oct. 9 of stomach cancer. He was 68.

"It must have been the motivation of the crowd that inspired me to resist," Mr. Castro told USA Today in 2009 for a story marking the 40th anniversary of Stonewall. "Or maybe at that point enough was enough."

Born in Puerto Rico, Mr. Castro moved to New York with his mother at age 5. He learned survival in his Spanish Harlem neighborhood.

"He was not afraid of anybody or anything," said Frank Sturniolo, Mr. Castro's partner of 31 years.

"Once, there was an effeminate boy in his school that a big guy picked on all the time," said Sturniolo, 50. "Ray said, 'Why don't you leave him alone?' The guy started to give him a hard time, so Ray picked up one of those chairs and hit him over the head with it."

Mr. Castro enjoyed baking and worked at Entenmann's for many years.

"He was a delightful man," said Jonathan Ned Katz, the co-director and founder of OutHistory.Org, a website run by the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at the City University of New York. "I found him really down-to-earth and humble, and sort of surprised that he had become a historical figure. . . . He was just an ordinary working-class guy."

Police raided the Stonewall Inn claiming that the club sold alcohol without a license, said David Carter, the author of Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution.

Mr. Castro showed his identification to an officer and was let go.

Once outside, Mr. Castro peered back inside the Stonewall through a window. A friend who lacked identification seemed to be signaling him for help. Mr. Castro tried to make his way back inside.

"He was accosted by a plainclothesman, who shoved him," Carter said. "Ray shoved back. He was tackled by a group of them."

A police report obtained by Katz last year through a Freedom of Information Law request and posted on OutHistory.Org alleges that Mr. Castro and two other defendants "did shove and kick the officer."

Police escorted a handcuffed Mr. Castro outside, where a crowd chanted, "Let him go! Let him go!"

As the officers tried to load him into a police wagon, Mr. Castro pushed off the vehicle's door with both feet, taking two officers to the ground with him.

"It was fuel on the fire," said Carter. "I think it was critically important, one of the high points of the evening."

Decades later, those actions struck Katz as consistent with the man he interviewed last year.

"There was a spirit of resistance he communicated to me that was quite thrilling and simple, in a way, that he didn't want to take it anymore," said Katz. "The police were coming for no reason into a place where he was having a drink."

Sturniolo described his partner as a jovial and loyal friend with a prankster's sense of humor, who put as much energy into scaring co-workers with a fake mouse as he did scouring thrift shops for items someone else might need.

After moving to Madeira Beach, Mr. Castro took his culinary skills to Publix stores at Dolphin Village and Carillon. He could personalize cakes for any occasion, replicating boats or baseball fields from photos or applying buttercream icing that matched the pattern of a bridal gown.

While he celebrated gains made by gay and lesbian activists, Mr. Castro sometimes wondered if people who were born after Stonewall could appreciate what happened there.

"A lot of people, especially the young ones, have no inkling of what Stonewall is," he told a newspaper in June. "They think Gay Pride is just a big party."

Doctors diagnosed Mr. Castro with terminal cancer in 2008. Makers of Stonewall Uprising, a documentary based on Carter's book, flew Mr. Castro to New York last year to revisit the site of the Stonewall Inn, which still operates under different management. Minus his hair because of chemotherapy, he attended the film's opening in Miami in April, then took questions from the audience.

His death comes as several gay rights issues are in the national spotlight. While legal arguments over gay marriage and gays in the military are winding through the courts, the recent suicides of four teen boys have made those issues chillingly personal.

Tyler Clementi, Seth Walsh, Billy Lucas and Asher Brown all had identified themselves as gay or bisexual. All died by suicide after allegations of bullying or cyberbullying by peers.

Forty-one years after Stonewall, their deaths remind gay rights supporters not to declare victory just yet.

"Since Stonewall, we've made amazing progress in establishing that homosexuals are human beings and as citizens they deserve rights," said Katz. "But it's clear that we still have very far to go and that there are still some elements in this society that don't think of homosexuals as human beings. Therefore they can harass them to death, literally."

Mourners flocked to Mr. Castro's funeral on Monday at Blessed Sacrament Church in Seminole.

They remembered a man whose fighting spirit helped launch a movement.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or ameacham@sptimes.com.

Raymond Castro

Born: Dec. 14, 1941

Died: Oct. 9, 2010

Survivors: partner Frank Sturniolo; brother Wayne Gonzalez; sister Yvonne Castillo and her husband, Alex.

BIOGRAPHY

Raymond Castro

Born: Dec. 14, 1941

Died: Oct. 9, 2010

Survivors: partner Frank Sturniolo; brother Wayne Gonzalez; sister Yvonne Castillo and her husband, Alex.

Raymond Castro played key role in 1969 Stonewall rebellion 10/20/10 [Last modified: Thursday, October 21, 2010 12:23am]

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