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.