John Burnside, Gay Pioneer, Dies
By: JASON VICTOR SERINUS
John Lyon Burnside III, longtime partner of Mattachine Society
founder Harry Hay, died peacefully in San Francisco on September 14
at the age of 91. The cause of death was an extremely aggressive form
of glioblastoma brain cancer. Hay, who many consider the founder of
the modern gay liberation movement, died in 2002 at the age of 90
from a tumor in the lungs.
At the time of his passing, Burnside was surrounded by members of the
Circle of Loving Companions. The group, whose name derives from a
non-profit Burnside and Hay founded in the 1960s, re-formed in 1999
when the couple moved to San Francisco in order to receive
round-the-clock support and care.
John Burnside was an activist, inventor, dancer, physicist, and lover
of men. He and Harry Hay became a couple in 1963, more than a decade
after Harry founded the Mattachine Society in 1950. They were part of
a generation of lesbian and gay elders, including Del Martin and
Phyllis Lyon, who founded the LGBT movement. In 1979, together with
Don Kilhefner and Mitch Walker, they convened the first Spiritual
Gathering of Radical Faeries.
By appearing in the landmark 1977 gay documentary "Word is Out," John
and Harry gave hope to generations of lesbians and gays that gay
couples can form in their mature years and survive into old age.
Burnside was honored at the Castro Theater this year during the 30th
anniversary screening of the film. He was also featured in Eric
Slade's 2002 documentary film about Hay, "Hope Along the Wind."
"We know John had a joyful end," said Circle member and former San
Francisco Pride Parade president Joey Cain. "In his last years, he
was surrounded by people who loved him. He knew he had that love.
Let's face it; the great bugaboo of gay men's lives is that when they
grow old, they will die alone, without the support of the family
structure. What John and Harry created continues to help dispel that
destiny for themselves and for all of us."
Many valued Burnside for his unflaggingly cheerful countenance and
outlook. In the midst of any hot-tempered debate over gay politics or
values, it was Burnside who cooled people down by reminding them of
the deep gay brotherhood and commonality the community shares. In a
1989 essay, "Who are the Gay People," Burnside wrote, "The crown of
Gay being is a way of loving, of reaching to love in a way that far
transcends the common mode."
That same year, in his Valentine to Hay, he wrote, "Hand in hand we
walk, as wing tip to wing tip. Our spirits roam the universe, finding
lovers everywhere. Sex is music. Time in not real. All things are
imbued with spirit."
Thankfully, Burnside was able to reap the rewards of his beliefs
through the love that was reflected back to him.
Less known is John Burnside's history as a physics and mathematics
graduate from UCLA who for a time worked at Lockheed as a staff
scientist. Burnside invented the teleidoscope, an innovative
variation on the kaleidoscope that works without the traditional
glass chips to create a symmetrical mandala. In 1958, he set up
California Kaleidoscopes in Los Angeles, which manufactured and
marketed his device across the nation.
In the 1970s, Burnside created the symetricon, a large mechanical
kaleidoscopic device that projects intricate, colorful patterns.
Images it created were used in a number of Hollywood films, including
The couple met at a seminar at the ONE Institute, the national gay
and lesbian archives in Los Angeles, and Burnside divorced his wife
Edith to move in with Hay. Three years later, in 1966, the two men
were part of a 15-car motorcade through downtown Los Angeles
protesting the military's exclusion of homosexuals. The event is
considered one of the country's first gay protest marches. In 1967,
two years before Stonewall, they appeared as a gay couple on "The Joe
Pyne Show" on Los Angeles television.
In the wake of Stonewall, the Southern California Gay Liberation
Front was founded and met in Burnside's teleidoscope factory. The
following year, the couple moved to San Juan Pueblo, New Mexico,
where Hay pursued his lifelong interest in Native American culture.
The couple later returned to Los Angeles before moving to San Francisco.
Burnside's final home was in Cain's longtime Haight-Ashbury flat.
"John was a lovely, creative individual," said filmmaker Slade, also
a Circle member. "He studied modern dance in the 1950s. I think
John's view of life was that it was all a dance, and he moved through
life in that way."
Donations in Burnside's honor will continue the activist work of John
Burnside and Harry Hay. Donations can be sent to The Harry Hay Fund,
c/o Chas Nol, 174 1â2 Hartford Street, San Francisco, CA 94114.
John Burnside dies at 91
by Liz Highleyman
John Lyon Burnside III, an inventor, dancer, and activist, died
Sunday, September 14. Recently diagnosed with glioblastoma brain
cancer, he passed away surrounded by loving friends at the age of 91.
Mr. Burnside was perhaps best known as the life partner of Harry Hay,
who started the first U.S. gay rights organization, the Mattachine
Society, in 1950. Having lived in the Castro since 1999, Mr. Burnside
resided for the past several months at the Haight-Ashbury home of
former Pride board president Joey Cain.
"It was a blessing for all of us to have John in our lives," Cain
said. "He was so beloved by the community. He just exuded warmth and
joy, and he had a dead-on fashion sense."
"He was an amazing human being, he was magical, he was fairy dust,
and he was a stalwart early pioneer of LGBT human rights," said
Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), who met Mr. Burnside shortly
before Mr. Hay's death in 2002.
Mr. Burnside was born November 2, 1916, in Seattle. An only child, he
was raised by his mother after his father left the family; being
poor, she periodically placed her son in the care of orphanages.
Mr. Burnside joined the Navy at age 16. Soon after his discharge, he
settled in Los Angeles and married Edith Sinclair; the couple had no
children. He studied physics and mathematics at the University of
California at Los Angeles, graduating in 1945. He pursued a career in
the aircraft industry, including a stint as a staff scientist at Lockheed.
Mr. Burnside's interest in optical engineering led him to invent the
teleidoscope, a type of kaleidoscope that works without colored glass
chips. He received a patent on the device, which brought him
considerable income. In 1958, he started his own company, California
Kaleidoscopes. He later created the symetricon, a large kaleidoscopic
device that projects patterns, which was used in several Hollywood films.
Mr. Burnside began coming to terms with his attraction for men in the
1960s. Some gay workers at the kaleidoscope workshop told him about
the ONE Institute, and he began attending classes. There, in 1963,
Mr. Burnside (then age 47) met Mr. Hay (then 51), who was promoting a
gay square dancing group. The two embarked on a whirlwind romance
that led to Mr. Burnside divorcing his wife and moving in with Mr. Hay.
Together, Mr. Burnside and Mr. Hay participated in many of the key
events of the burgeoning gay movement. In May 1966, they were part of
a 15-car motorcade through downtown Los Angeles to protest the
military's exclusion of homosexuals. In 1969, they attended the
founding meetings of the Southern California Gay Liberation Front.
Although Mr. Burnside had not been an activist before meeting Mr.
Hay, the two men became fixtures at pickets and demonstrations
supporting labor and the anti-war movement, as well as gay rights.
"John was always so inquisitive and had so many interests politics,
the environment, social justice, history, science, engineering, the
arts he could engage anyone in meaningful conversation," said Mr.
Hay's niece, Sally Hay, a lesbian activist in Rhode Island who worked
at Mr. Burnside's kaleidoscope factory as a college student in 1969.
"To the very end, he lived his life with great enthusiasm."
In 1970, Mr. Burnside and Mr. Hay moved to San Juan Pueblo, New
Mexico, drawn by their involvement in the Indian Land and Life
Committee and Mr. Hay's growing interest in Native American culture,
in particular the two-spirit people. Like Mr. Hay, Mr. Burnside came
to see gay people as a distinct group with a particular role in
society. "The crown of gay being is a way of loving, of reaching to
love in a way that far transcends the common mode," he wrote in 1989.
In 1979, frustrated with the gay movement's drift toward mainstream
assimilation, Mr. Burnside and Mr. Hay, along with fellow activists
Don Kilhefner and Mitch Walker, organized the first Spiritual
Gathering of Radical Faeries. Since that first gathering of 200 men
at an ashram near Tucson, the faerie movement has held dozens of
gatherings around the world and established permanent sanctuaries
across the country. "The people who have come to the gatherings came
looking to find themselves," Mr. Burnside once said, "but they found
each other, too."
Mr. Burnside and Mr. Hay were among the first long-term gay male
couples in the public eye, and thus served as role models for
countless LGBT people. As early as 1967, they appeared together on
the Joe Pyne television show in Los Angeles. They were featured in
the groundbreaking 1977 documentary Word is Out, as well as the 2002
biographical documentary Hope Along the Wind .
"People mostly remember him as Harry Hay's partner, but John was his
own very powerful and very creative person," said Hope Along the Wind
director Eric Slade. "He was a deep thinker and a beautiful man."
Slade said he plans to incorporate hours of additional footage of Mr.
Burnside into a feature for the DVD release of the film.
In 1999, Mr. Burnside and Mr. Hay came to San Francisco, where Mr.
Hay had been selected as grand marshal of that year s Pride parade.
After Mr. Hay became too ill to return to Los Angeles, friends helped
the couple to relocate to the city. Mr. Burnside became a familiar
presence, never missing the weekly Faerie Coffee Circles at the LGBT
Community Center after it opened.
Although they maintained a loving partnership for nearly 40 years,
Mr. Burnside and Mr. Hay had an open relationship and expressed no
interest in legal marriage. In a 1989 Valentine to Mr. Hay, Mr.
Burnside wrote, "Hand in hand we walk, as wing tip to wing tip, our
spirits roam the universe, finding lovers everywhere."
"John and Harry, along with Del [Martin] and Phyllis [Lyon],
symbolized for a whole generation the possibility that two gay people
could sustain a committed, long-term loving relationship," said Cain.
"However, John had no interest in imitating the heteros in any way,
and marriage was for him an unimaginative institution of the
oppressor. He believed that gay people would create new forms of
relations that were suited to their unique ways of loving one another."
Indeed, Mr. Burnside and Mr. Hay created around themselves a broad
community of friends, lovers, and supporters. A group of Radical
Faeries dubbed the Circle of Loving Companions cared for the two men
during their final years.
"His life dispelled the notion that haunted all the early LGBT
freedom fighters, that without the hetero family structure you will
die lonely and unloved," Cain added.
"John Burnside's gifts to queer life are deep and powerful," said
GLBT Historical Society board member Terence Kissack. "His love for
art, justice, and the beloved communities he helped nurture continue
to inspire. I am particularly grateful for the way he helped take a
word, 'fairy,' that has cut so many of us to the quick and made it a
living symbol of joy, freedom, and fellowship."
A spontaneous memorial altar for Mr. Burnside has been set up at the
corner of 18th and Castro streets. A public memorial service is being
planned. In accordance with his wishes, Mr. Burnside's ashes will be
co-mingled with those of Mr. Hay and scattered at the Nomenus Radical
Faerie Sanctuary in Wolf Creek, Oregon.
Donations in Mr. Burnside's memory may be made to the Harry Hay Fund,
which will continue their work toward gay liberation. The Harry Hay
Fund, c/o Chas Nol, 174 1/2 Hartford Street, San Francisco, CA 94114.