Leader of one of nation’s first gay rights groups

From a Times Staff Writer

Kennith H. Burns, an early leader of the Mattachine Society, one of the country’s first gay rights organizations, died Dec. 16 at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank. He was 81.

The cause was lung failure, according to a friend, Dale Olson.

Burns was a founding member of the Mattachine Society, which was founded in Los Angeles in 1950 by activist Harry Hay and others.

In 1953, when McCarthyism was strengthening its grip on the national consciousness, Hay and other Mattachine leaders with communist ties were ousted and Burns assumed a prominent role in the organization.


The society moved in a more conservative direction during Burns’ tenure as Mattachine president in the mid- to late 1950s. Along with other Mattachine leaders, including Harold Call and Don Lucas, he urged members to temper their public image and assimilate into society.

“We must blame ourselves for much of our plight,” Burns said during this period. “When will homosexuals ever realize that social reform, in order to be effective, must be preceded by personal reform?”

Born Jan. 21, 1926, in Santa Ana, Burns grew up in Long Beach. He briefly attended USC before joining the Army and serving in the medical corps during World War II. After the war, he returned to USC to study international relations.

Instead of pursuing a career in diplomacy, he went to work for the Carnation Co. in Los Angeles as a safety engineer, eventually rising to the post of safety director. He retired from the company in the 1980s.

After stepping down from his duties as head of the Mattachine Society in 1959, he remained active in the gay and lesbian community and was honored for his contributions by the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.