Contentious Mattachine Society Leader Felled By Lung Failure

Gay Rights Activist Burns Dead At 81

No doubt all of our lives would be different without Kennith H. Burns, one of the founding members of the Mattachine Society: the United States’ first gay rights movement. The 81-year old died of lung failure in California last month.

A controversial figure in the movement, Burns is credited with moving the Society toward the center:

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?”

Though he later stepped down from the Mattachine Society, Burns continued to work with GLAAD and LA’s LGBT Center.