John Lyon Burnside III 1916 – 2008

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John Burnside, inventor of the teleidoscope, Gay rights activist, and co-founder of the Radical Faeries, passed away on September 14th due to complications from brain cancer. Burnside was the lifelong companion and partner of Harry Hay (1912 – 2002), another co-founder of the Radical Faeries, and a seminal figure within the Gay rights movement.

John Burnside, photo by Rory Cecil.

After meeting in the mid-sixties, Burnside and Hay blazed a trail for the still nascent Gay rights movement. They were protesting the exclusion of Gays from the military back in 1966, and appeared on television together two years before the Stonewall riots. Unlike some Gay rights advocates, Burnside was not an assimilationist, preferring that Gays develop their own unique culture and spirituality. This impulse lead to the creation of the Radical Faerie movement in 1979.

“In 1979 John and Harry joined with fellow activists Don Kilhefner and Mitch Walker to call the first Spiritual Gathering of Radical Faeries. Fed up with the Gay movement’s steady drift towards mainstream assimilation, the gathering called to Gay men across the country. Since that time dozens of Faerie gatherings have been called around the world and permanent Radical Faerie sanctuaries have formed across the country. The movement helped to nurture and create a specifically Gay centered spiritual exploration and tradition.”

In Burnside’s 1989 essay “Who Are the Gay People?”, he illuminated the idea of a “Gay consciousness”, and described Gays as people who make a “continual reference to inner vision and insight”.

“Refusing to be products of the man/woman-making machine, Gay people must undertake to create themselves. Having no models to imitate, Gay people are free to adopt what they like from among the many ways there are to be. They search everywhere for promising leads, and, like spiritual magpies they take what they like from any system of religion or philosophy without feeling obliged to take the whole of it. Gay people continue to work on themselves all their lives, moving from stage to stage, growing in spirit, living in change, and rejoicing in being themselves.”

Needless to say, the Radical Faeries have had a huge impact on Gay Pagan spirituality, and the movement has done much to help integrate Gay voices into the wider Pagan community since the early 1980s*. Burnside, along with Hay and other pioneers in the Gay spirituality movement, have left an indelible mark on Gay and Pagan culture. His voice and unique spirit will be missed. May he be reunited with his loved ones in the Otherworld.

Obituary Links: SF Gate, Gay Wisdom, LA Times, Queensland Pride, Bay Area Reporter

* This process was partially documented by Margot Adler in her revised and expanded edition of “Drawing Down the Moon”.