Editor’s note: When White Crane asked Stuart Timmons to write about John Burnside and Harry Hay, he drew from his 1990 biography, The Trouble With Harry Hay, which told that story. Passages from that book appear in italics, with permission. But he found a bit more of the story. Whitman quotations are from the “Calamus” poems in the 1892 edition of Leaves of Grass.
They met long ago, in 1962, but late in their own lives. Harry was past fifty; John was four years younger. To Gay friends they exemplified that rare thing, an activist couple, and, eventually, an even greater rarity, an elder Gay couple. To the straight world they were the progressives who immediately brought Gay politics to social justice events by wearing matching outfits and carrying beribboned picket signs. Their conjoined presence even had a name: Harry’nJohn.
But Harry Hay and John Burnside were, first and foremost, simply trying to beat the odds of middle age and the void of support in finding Gay love and companionship. The little-told story is that the activist and the inventor succeeded –not just for themselves, but for us. As a part of their own relationship, Hay and Burnside set out to model something that was in very short supply in 1962: Gay community.
That word, which overuse has caused to ring somewhat hollow, carries a powerful weight and heritage, as they were aware. The concept that the expression of Gay love, not just as a personal act, but as a broad social value – was an world-changing idea – dates back to the intellectual ferment of the second half of the 19th Century. Especially evident in the poems of Walt Whitman, the concept of Gay male companionship as a revolutionary and transformative phenomenon had ignited the imaginations of countless Gay men, however subtly or even unconsciously.
For the new couple, it was quite conscious. Having poured his life energies into the founding of the Mattachine Society in a period spanning 1948 to 1953, Hay became exhausted by and profoundly wary of formal organizations. When nasty infighting caused Hay to part with the organization he had created, he vowed never again to make himself vulnerable to hierarchical structures – which he glibly dismissed as “hetero-imitative.” He even questioned whether such organizations could achieve social change. Nevertheless he remained dedicated to social reform. A Gay presence in the mass culture became his method. This process began, for Harry’nJohn, with them.
They had met once before — in the fire-lit living room of the British philosopher Gerald Heard, who expounded on the notion that a secret society of homosexuals was destined to —anonymously and benevolently — run the world. But Harry and John only connected months later, at ONE Incorporated, the heir to Hay’s homophile organizing which focused on classes and cultural activities. ONE, which John referred to as “the University of Homosexuality,” was by nature a largely male, over-40 crowd. Hay visited with occasional inspirations, and one afternoon, while proposing a Gay square-dancing league, he encountered something that stopped him cold:
He heard what he later called ‘a cascade of silvery laughter’ coming from an adjoining office. He insisted on meeting its source, who was a middle-aged man with youthful, cherubic features and deep dimples – just Harry’s type. As he subsequently maneuvered around the man with the silvery laugh, it dawned on Harry that ‘just maybe I was coming to know a five-foot eight version of the man of my dreams… They mentioned meeting again the next day at ONE, and did so nonchalantly – Hay dressed in a tight yellow cashmere sweater he had not worn in years, and Burnside wearing scarlet shorts and a matching t-shirt.
John was a successful businessman. He had pioneered a new form of kaleidoscope that had been widely publicized, including in the Village Voice and Vogue, and sold at stores ranging from Neiman-Marcus (John corresponded with Stanley Marcus himself) to Fraser’s, an upscale emporium in Berkeley. His invention had earned John a home in the Hollywood hills – but he was married, and, aside from early childhood forays, remained a Gay virgin. Only since he had begun attending ONE had he began to approach actual personal fulfillment. That fulfillment raced forward when he arranged to have dinner at Harry’s.
Though John arrived a nerve-wracking three hours late to their first date, they postponed the chef’s salad Harry had prepared for another five hours, which they spent in bed. They fell for each other at every level, as they found out how much they had in common. Burnside was also a westerner, from Seattle. Both were lapsed Catholics, were close in age (Burnside was forty-seven, Harry fifty-one), and had weathered long heterosexual marriages…. [Burnside] described their childless union as “not unhappy” but his inner life he considered “cursed” until he first visited ONE, which he had heard about from some Gay employees at the kaleidoscope factory. Within two weeks of meeting Harry – they date their anniversary as October 6 –their relationship was “fixed.” But there was a hitch: John’s wife Edith.
Extricating John from the secure if unfulfilling life he had known was not easy. While he knew a relationship with Harry was inevitable, he still needed to break free of his early indoctrination in homophobia by Catholic brothers. He required time to make the leap to Gay life – as well as into a relationship with a powerful personality. Harry’s response was a convention of classic heterosexuality. “We went through a whole process of courtship. Harry courted me,” says Burnside. Their values only sometimes clashed; at one point, John offered to buy Harry a mink coat, a touching gesture but one far too bourgeois for Hay’s taste –let alone for Southern California weather.
Falling in love at fifty-one was, to Hay, a phenomenon of healing. He wrote of the experience, “The pain is lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy. I can remember when John and I first felt that amazement.” The affair was even more of an emotional milestone for Burnside, who came to this first love with a preserved innocence. They began a never-ending dialogue about their backgrounds, reading, and ideas, starting on Friday night and continuing to Monday morning, when each had to return to work.
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Stuart Timmons is an author, historian and biographer living in Los Angeles. He is the author of The Trouble With Harry Hay and co-author of Gay L.A. which won two Lambda Literary Awards.