Gay rights activist also invented variation on kaleidoscope

Times Staff Writer

John Burnside, the inventor of a kaleidoscope-like device called the teleidoscope and an early gay movement activist who was the longtime partner of the late gay rights pioneer Harry Hay, has died. He was 91.

Burnside, who had recently been diagnosed with glioblastoma brain cancer, died Sunday at his home in San Francisco, said Joey Cain, a longtime friend.

“I don’t think it’s a cliche to say that John Burnside epitomized the full meaning of the word gentleman,” said Mark Thompson, a well-known writer on gay history and culture who knew Burnside for nearly 30 years. “He was not only smart and funny and bright, he was also profoundly, at his core, a gentle man and all that that implies.


“He was a very beloved person in our community of men loving men.”

A onetime staff scientist at Lockheed, Burnside had an interest in optical engineering that led to his inventing the teleidoscope, a variation on the kaleidoscope that works without the use of colored glass chips and instead uses a lens to transform whatever is in front of it into a colorful design.

In 1958, he launched California Kalidoscopes, which became a successful Los Angeles design and manufacturing plant.

In the 1970s, Burnside created the Symetricon, a large mechanical kaleidoscopic device that projects colorful patterns; it was used in a number of movies, including the 1976 science fiction film “Logan’s Run.”

By then, Burnside was more than a decade into what would be a 39-year relationship with Hay, who had started the pioneering Mattachine Society, a gay rights organization, in Los Angeles in 1950.

When they first met at a gay community center in downtown Los Angeles in 1963, Burnside was married with no children. He divorced his wife and moved in with Hay.

The two men became a highly visible activist couple, including appearing together on confrontational TV talk show host Joe Pyne’s program.


In 1965, Burnside and Hay helped form the Southern California Council on Religion and the Homophile.

A year later, they participated in one of the country’s first gay rights demonstrations: a 15-car motorcade through downtown Los Angeles protesting the exclusion of gays from the military.

And in 1969, they participated in the founding meetings of the Southern California Gay Liberation Front, one of which was held at Burnside’s teleidoscope factory.

“They were real role models for positive gay life, and they were activists who put their lives literally on the line in countless demonstrations, marches and parades,” Thompson said.

But Hay and Burnside weren’t committed just to gay issues, he said. “They were totally committed to peace and justice issues on a wide spectrum of social concerns, including Native American rights, women’s and labor issues, fair employment and housing -- they were just good social activists.”

In 1970, Burnside and Hay moved to San Juan Pueblo, N.M.

“They had gone out there to help Native Americans reclaim their water rights,” said Don Kilhefner, co-founder of the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center. “They were a very socially and politically conscious couple. You couldn’t ask for better.”


In 1979, Burnside and Hay joined Kilhefner in organizing the first Spiritual Gathering for Radical Faeries, a weekend get-together in a remote ashram east of Tucson.

The Radical Faeries, which Kilhefner said began as a gathering of about 150 gay men to bring a new level of consciousness and spirituality to the gay liberation movement, has grown into an international movement.

Burnside and Hay were featured in the 1977 documentary “Word Is Out,” and they appeared together in the 2002 documentary about Hay, “Hope Along the Wind.”

John Lyon Burnside III was born in Seattle on Nov. 2, 1916. He joined the Navy at 16 and married soon after his discharge.

A 1945 graduate of UCLA, where he studied physics and mathematics, Burnside launched his career in the aircraft industry.

Burnside and Hay moved back to Los Angeles from New Mexico in 1979.

They moved to San Francisco in 1999 and continued their activist work; Hay died in 2002 at age 90.


A memorial service for Burnside in San Francisco is pending.

Donations in Burnside’s memory to continue his and Hay’s activist work may be made to the Harry Hay Fund, c/o Chas Nol, 174 1/2 Hartford St., San Francisco, CA 94114.