John Burnside was born on November 2, 1916 in Seattle, an only child. He joined the U.S. Navy at the age of 16 and married Edith Sinclair soon after his discharge. He graduated from UCLA where he studied mathematics and physics. He secured a wartime position in the aircraft industry, eventually becoming a staff scientist at Lockheed.
His interest in optical engineering led to his invention of the teleidoscope, an innovative variation on the kaleidoscope that works without the traditional glass chips to color the view. His patent on the device in 1958 allowed him to live independently. He set up a design and manufacturing plant in Los Angeles, called California Kalidoscopes. The teleidoscope was sold in stores across the country and was featured in the Village Voice. In the 1970s, he created the Symetricon, a large mechanical kaleidoscopic device that projects colorful patterns. It was used in a number of movies, including Logan's Run in 1976.
The turning point in Burnside's life came in 1963. He had gotten to know homosexual workers at his factory and through them learned of the ONE Institute, a gay community center in downtown Los Angeles. He attended a seminar there in September 1963 where he met Harry Hay, founder of the Mattachine Society. John and Harry began a whirlwind romance. John divorced his wife and moved in with Harry.
Burnside and Hay became a highly visible couple who were involved in many of the early moments of the emerging gay rights movements. In 1965, they helped form the Southern California Council on Religion and the Homophile. In May 1966, they were in one of the first gay protest marches, a 15-car motorcade through downtown Los Angeles protesting the military's exclusion of homosexuals. They appeared as a couple on the Joe Pyne television show in Los Angeles in 1967. In 1969, they were part of the founding meetings of the Southern California Gay Liberation Front which met in John's factory.
Hay shared his lifelong interest in Native American culture with Burnside. Through their inolvement in the Indian Land and Life COmmittee and working for reclaiming water rights and preserving culture of Native Americans, they moved to San Jan Pueblo in New Mexico in 1970.
Led by concern that gays were assimilating into mainstream society, Burnside and Hay, along with Don Kilhefner and Mitch Walker, organized the first Spiritual Gathering for Radical Faeries on Labor Day weekend 1978. This weekend gathering brought together about 150 gay men in a remote ashram outside Tucson. Since that time dozens of Faerie gatherings have happened around the world and Radical Faerie sanctuaries have formed in various parts of the U.S. The Radical Faerie movement has been a key component in the development of gay-centered spiritualities and traditions.
Burnside and Hay moved back to Los Angeles in 1979. They were featured in the 1977 documentary "Word Is Out" and appeared in the 2002 documentary about Hay entitled "Hope Along the Wind." They continued their social activism on many fronts even into later years and declining health. In 1999 Burnside and Hay moved to San Francisco where a group of Radical Faeries, the Circle of Loving Companions, became caretakers for them. Hay died in 2002 at the age of 90.
Burnside continued his visible presence in the San Francisco LGBT community. He rode in the LGBT Pride Parade every year. It is said that he never missed the Faerie Coffee Circle held each Saturday in San Francisco's LGBT Community Center.
John Burnside died on September 14, 2008, at the home of Joey Cain where he had been living surrounded by the Circle of Loving Companions. Cain offered this statement on behalf of the Circle: "We are saddened by our dear, sweet John's passing, but are gratified that John's last years were happy and he was surrounded by people who loved him. His life dispelled the notion that haunted all early LGBT freedom fighters, that without the hetero family structure you will die lonely and unloved. The work that John, Harry and the other LGBT pioneers did has dispelled that destiny forever for all of us."
(This biographical statement taken from obituaries on the Gay Wisdom blog and the Los Angeles Times.)
Biography Date: February 2009
Radical Faeries | Hay, Harry | Council on Religion and the Homosexual | Mattachine Society | California | Burnside, John | EXHIBIT Council on Religion and the Homosexual
“John Burnside | Profile”, LGBTQ Religious Archives Network, accessed December 07, 2023, https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/profiles/john-burnside.
“I was introduced to John by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon along with Harry Hay at the second symposium on the homosexual at Glide about 1969. We were enablers of that experience. When I started my program Stonewall Drug and Alcohol treatment program for Gays and Lesbians they sent me a box of Kaleidoscopes to help us in raising funds for the program. I visited John and Harry in New Mexico 1975 a year before they started the Radical Fairies. In 1974 they visited us in Seattle and spent a week interacting with our residents. I remember John as a thoughtful and determination person and noticed his loving relationship with Harry.”
– as remembered by David Baird on May 1, 2019
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