A True Gentleman

Recollections of an unforgettable spirit named John Burnside.



The men became a highly visible activist couple for gay rights long before it felt safe or fashionable. They stood up for a wide range of other progressive causes too, seeing the struggle for gay civil rights as part of a wider movement for social change.

While Harry was the more vocal of the pair, John played an invaluable role as consort and mediator. He was their bedrock, a lifeline for humor and grace in everything they did together. Politics aside, John was also a marvelous inventor. A trained scientist, he had a special interest in optical engineering and created a new kind of kaleidoscope that used a lens rather than glass chips to make a colorful design.

By the 1970s he had perfected his invention into a machine he called the Symetricon, which projected iridescent patterns of light. The device was used in a number of Hollywood movies, but the best shows were the ones he gave at home on Saturday nights. There was always a sweet flock of faerie-identified men present for a simple vegetarian dinner. Then after the last dish was washed and put away, John would unfold his one-of-a-kind contraption while the rest of us snuggled on the floor in each other’s arms. The lights were dimmed, and off we all went on the most extraordinary ride over the rainbow anyone could imagine.

It could have been a cozy scene from the cover of an old magazine like The Saturday Evening Post, only considerably queered. John would work the gears and levers, making the shapes take incredible form, giggling like the fey wizard he was. If you’re going to call yourself gay, well, then be truly gay, John said. He was a man always true to his word; I’ve never met a kinder or gayer fellow than John Burnside.

Tags: People