Richard J. Heakin (1954-1975)

Jim Burroway

October 13th, 2006

Our local afternoon paper, the tiny but intrepid Tucson Citizen ran a great article yesterday about Richard J. Heakin, Jr., a gay man who was visiting Tucson from Nebraska. In June 6, 1975, the 21-year-old was attacked and killed by four teenagers while leaving a local bar near downtown.

Outraged that the 15- to 17-year-old killers received only probation for what was termed a hate crime, Tucson pressed for change and introduced anti-discrimination laws, new organizations and pride events celebrating the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community.

Then a Tucson committee decided on a memorial and tried to reach the Heakin family. But a dishonest friend supposedly said they wanted nothing to do with it, the family later learned.

The family remained in the dark about the impact Richard’s death had in Tucson. It led to Tucson becoming one of the first communities in the nation to pass anti-discrimination laws based on sexual orientation a few months after his death. It also led to the establishment of Wingspan, one of the largest LGBT community centers in the country for a city our size. (Tucsonans like to point out that Phoenix doesn’t even have one.) And every year, on June 6, Richard’s death is remembered with a gathering at the Richard Heakin Memorial in Tucson’s Presidio Park.

And now, thanks to the Internet, Richard’s family has learned about the great impact his death has had in our community. His niece tapped his name into a search engine, and a whole world opened up for her and her family.

Heather Ryan typed into an Internet search engine the name of an uncle four teens beat to death in Tucson and discovered a world unknown to the family…

While Lori Ryan, Heakin’s sister, was at bingo, her daughter spent the night at their Missouri home tracking down e-mail addresses that resulted in a phone number exchange, which led to a talk with Rowan Frost, one among the group that tried to reach the family years ago.

“We probably still would not have known if she hadn’t . . . gone on the Net,” Ryan, 49, said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “Making that phone call made all the difference.”

So came the tender and thrilling moment when Ryan received a mass of newspaper clippings about various events commemorating her brother. She booked a flight to Tucson so she could get to know the city that has spent decades keeping his name alive.

Tucson’s main morning newspaper, The Arizona Daily Star followed up with another story in Ernesto Portillo, Jr.’s column:

She wasn’t emotional as she walked up to the shaded memorial bearing her dead brother’s name Thursday, but Lori Ryan seemed tentative nonetheless.

It was understandable.

It was the first time Ryan or anyone from her Nebraska family had been to Downtown’s Presidio Park to see the 4-year-old plaque bearing the name of her older brother, Richard J. Heakin Jr., a victim of hate and intolerance….

“I never realized his death made such a difference,” said Ryan, 49, several hours after her plane landed at the airport. “It’s incredible to know that people who didn’t know him went through all this.”

Most gay communities celebrate Pride during June to commemorate the Stonewall riots. But Tucson waits until October, when the temperature will more reliably remain below 100. This year’s Pride is this weekend and Richard Heakin’s family will be in attendance. The original grand marshal of the parade even stepped aside so Lori Ryan could have the honor.

Kahlil Gilbran once wrote, “Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” Some of our greatest advancements are born through terrible loss. Richard Heakin’s senseless death more than thirty years ago brought about a great transformation in a small city in the desert. This weekend, we will celebrate our pride in ourselves and in our community’s transformation. And we will remember the suffering.

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