A True Gentleman

By Mark Thompson

Originally published on Advocate.com October 08 2008 12:00 AM 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.

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.