A True Gentleman

Recollections of an unforgettable spirit named John Burnside.

BY Mark Thompson

October 07 2008 11:00 PM ET

“Pardon me,” the voice asked with a soft tap on my bare shoulder. “But would you care for some more mud?” It was my new friend John Burnside, and he was standing in a shallow ravine in the Arizona desert with about 50 other naked men. We were all covered with reddish wet earth and bits of chaparral in our hair. John was one of the bucket carriers whose job was to make sure there was enough mud for everyone.

Burnside was one of the organizers of the first Spiritual Gathering for Radical Faeries on Labor Day weekend in 1979. And it wasn’t just a bucket of coarse ooze he was offering, but as much gay love and freedom from heterosexist inhibitions one could possibly tolerate in a summer day. That was John’s supreme calling in life: to liberate gay men from doubt and self-hatred and thus hopefully inspire others to do the same. A perpetual smile, an impish wit, and curiosity about everything -- especially other people -- were the tools he employed (including dabs of mud) his entire life.

In the nearly 30 years I knew John, until his death at age 91 on September 14, 2008, I never once heard a mean word from him. Oh, he might scold a tad if you did something dumb, and he certainly enjoyed a lively debate. But John was authentically a gentle man; while he relished being a sissy, he was no one’s fool and knew it.

Burnside was the “other half” in one of America’s best-known gay couples. He met his life partner, Harry Hay (fiery founder of the nation’s first sustained gay group, the Mattachine Society), in the early 1960s. It was love at first sight, an inspiring union that would last for the next 39 years, until Harry’s passing in 2002.

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