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LGBTQ rights advocate John Burlison dies at 69

Served as co-chair of Maryland’s Free State Justice

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Burlison, gay news, Washington Blade
John S. Burlison was co-chair of Free State Justice Campaign.

John S. Burlison, a resident of North Bethesda, Md. who worked as a technical editor and writer and later as a software products manager and who served in the 1990s as a board member and co-chair of the Maryland LGBTQ rights group Free State Justice Campaign, died March 18 at his home of complications associated with abdominal cancer. He was 69.

Burlison was born in Moscow, Idaho, and attended high school in Potlach, Idaho before graduating from the University of Idaho with a bachelor’s degree in Speech Communication, according to a write-up released by his husband, Ron Dagani.

He studied at Illinois State University before beginning his professional career as a technical editor and writer at Battelle-Northwest Laboratories in Richland, Wash. He moved to Washington, D.C. in 1983 where he met Dagani, and the two have resided together in Maryland since 1984, the write-up says. Burlison and Dagani were married in 2013 on the 30th anniversary of their meeting each other.

According to Dagani, Burlison worked for several companies in the D.C. area that provide contract work for the federal government as a usability consultant and later as a software product manager. Among the firms he worked for were Computer Sciences Corporation and General Sciences Corporation.

He worked for the Federal National Mortgage Association known as Fannie Mae from 1997 until his retirement in 2007, Dagani’s write-up says.

The write-up, which Dagani said was prepared mostly by Burlison, notes that Burlison served for a number of years in the 1990s on the board of the Free State Justice Campaign and served for two years as the then Maryland gay rights organization’s co-chair as it advocated for LGBTQ rights legislation before the Maryland General Assembly. The organization later became Equality Maryland.

In the early 2000s Burlison took up square dancing with the D.C. Lambda Squares, an LGBTQ square dancing club for which he served on its board for nine years, the write-up says. He was an avid cyclist and traveled with friends on extended bicycle trips along the U.S. East Coast and throughout central Europe.

Dagani said religion and faith were an important part of Burlison’s life and that presented a conflict with his status as a proud gay man. According to Dagani, Burlison grew up in a religious Methodist home in Idaho but converted to the Mormon faith in the early 1970s shortly before he married a Mormon woman in 1973 who had been his childhood sweetheart, Susan Comstock.

The couple, who had four children, divorced while living in Washington State around the time Burlison was working for Battelle-Northwest Laboratories. Dagani said Mormon Church officials had earlier told Burlison, who loved his wife and told her he was gay before they married, that getting married would solve his “gay problem.” But church officials later excommunicated Burlison for homosexuality and “apostasy,” Dagani said.

When his wife remarried she and her new husband took legal action to arrange for the husband to adopt the children and deny parental rights for Burlison, Dagani said. But despite this trying experience, years later while living in Maryland in a fulfilling relationship with Dagani, Burlison returned to the Mormon Church in what turned out to be a supportive Kensington Ward congregation in Maryland near his and Dagani’s home.

“At first it was awkward and surreal – people who are rejected by a church do not normally re-enter the good graces of that community,” Dagani wrote in a draft obituary he plans to deliver when the coronavirus epidemic subsides and a memorial service for Burlison can be held. “But with time he found a place in the Kensington Ward, which he found to be warm, loving, and accepting of both of us,” Dagani wrote. “As one ward member told me recently, ‘John has touched the lives of so many current and past ward members,’” Dagani recounted.

Burlison also became involved with the LGBTQ Mormon group Affirmation, Dagani said.

“John was a sweet, gentle, loving, soft-spoken man with a whimsical sense of humor,” Dagani told the Washington Blade. “He was modest, often referring to himself as ‘an Idaho country farm boy.’ That he was, but he was also intelligent, smart, well-read, and curious about the world.”

Dagani, who noted that Burlison’s close friends addressed him by the nickname Happy, said he will miss his husband for his many talents, including his cooking and his “wacky, whimsical sense of humor…Most of all, though, I will miss his love. He was truly the love of my life,” said Dagani. “Thank you, Happy.”

Burlison was predeceased by his brother, Vernon Burlison Jr. In addition to his husband Ron Dagani, Burlison is survived by his siblings Grace Burlison Wallace, Frank Burlison, Katherine Clancy, Stephen Burlison, Patricia Finn, and John Michael Finn; his four children, Timothy Mauery, Sarah Mauery Foutz, Vernon Mauery, and Mary Mauery Haeberle; 23 grandchildren; and many friends.

Dagani said a celebration of Burlison’s life will be scheduled at a later date.

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Comings & Goings

McCarty named director of partnerships at Universe

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Steven McCarty

The Comings & Goings column is about sharing the professional successes of our community. We want to recognize those landing new jobs, new clients for their business, joining boards of organizations and other achievements. Please share your successes with us at: [email protected].

Congratulations to Steven McCarty on his new position with Universe, as Director of Partnerships. Universe supports movement organizations, labor unions, and Democratic campaigns, with the software they need to win. On accepting the new position he said, “I’m most excited to take my years of campaign and technology experience to down-ballot Democrats across the country as we fight to preserve our Democracy this election cycle.” 

Prior to this, McCarty was Business Development + Partnerships Lead, at STAC labs (State Technology Acceleration Collaborative), where he spearheaded strategic business development initiatives, expanding STAC labs’ partner network by 400% with the launch of the Progressive Tech Index and doubling DemLaunch user base from four to 11 states within a year. Prior to that he was president at The Kiwanis Club of Washington, D.C.; Senior Customer Success Manager at Crowdskout; Vice President at Circle K International, Indianapolis, Ind.; and a summer fellow at Michigan State AFL-CIO, Lansing, Mich. 

He has done a lot of volunteer work, including being an elected Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for ANC 2G04, representing Blagden Alley, Naylor Court, and Shepherd Court. He received a Youth Champion Award for outstanding support to LGBTQ Youth, from SMYAL; and was named a Kiwanis Member of the Year, Kiwanis Club of Washington, D.C.

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District of Columbia

Cherry Fund files lawsuit  against Republiq Hall

LGBTQ nonprofit says breach of contract led to $137,000 in lost revenue

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Cherry Fund claims Republiq Hall canceled a contract for one of its popular events. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Cherry Fund, the D.C.-based nonprofit organization that has raised money for HIV/AIDS, mental health, and LGBTQ organizations for the past 27 years, filed a lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court on May 31 charging Republiq Hall, a large entertainment venue in Northeast D.C, with abruptly and improperly cancelling Cherry Fund’s reservation to rent the hall for an April 6 event expected to draw 2,000 paid guests.

The event was to be one of several circuit dance parties that Cherry Fund produces as part of its annual Cherry weekend in April, which has raised several million dollars for LGBTQ related organizations since the Cherry weekend  events began in 1996.  

The lawsuit, which charges Republiq Hall with breach of contract, says the contract signed by the two parties in January called for Cherry Fund to pay Republiq Hall an initial deposit of $3,500 on Jan. 10, 2024, to be applied to a nonrefundable rental fee totaling $7,000 for the one-time use of the space on April 6.

Republiq Hall is located in a large former warehouse building at 2122 24th Place, N.E., near the intersection of Bladensburg Road and New York Avenue. 

According to the lawsuit, under the contract, Cherry Fund “was responsible for promoting the event, booking talent, and managing ticket sales,” with Cherry Fund to “retain all door fee revenues and a percentage of the net bar sales.”

The lawsuit states, “On February 28, after Plaintiff had already begun promoting the event and booking talent, the Defendant unilaterally and without just cause demanded an additional $9,000 from the Plaintiff. When the Plaintiff refused to pay the additional amount, the Defendant cancelled the reservation.”

 As a result of Republiq Hall’s action, the lawsuit states, Cherry Fund was “forced to book an alternative venue with significantly less capacity, resulting in substantial financial losses.” 

It says as a direct result of the alleged breach of contract, Cherry Fund “suffered financial damages in the amount of $130,000 in lost door fees and $7,000 in a lost percentage of the net bar sales that were estimated to be collected on the date of the event.”

A spokesperson for Republiq Hall did not respond to a phone message from the Washington Blade requesting a comment and a response to the lawsuit’s allegations.

Court records show that Superior Court Judge Juliet J. McKenna, who is presiding over the case, scheduled an initial hearing for the case on Sept. 6. McKenna issued an order providing guidance for how a civil litigation case should proceed that includes a requirement that Republiq Hall must file a response to the lawsuit within 21 days of being officially served a copy of the lawsuit complaint.

Sean Morris, the Cherry Fund president, issued a statement expressing disappointment over the developments leading to the lawsuit.

“Our organization, powered by volunteer efforts, relies on our annual event to fundraise for local non-profits,” he said. “This abrupt and unforeseen demand, and subsequent cancellation, has severely affected our ability to support vital community programs focused on HIV/AIDS, mental health, and LGBTQ+ advocacy,” Morris says in his statement.

The lawsuit concludes by stating, “The Plaintiff, the Cherry Fund, respectfully requests the following relief: Direct compensatory damages for the lost benefits it was entitled to under the terms of the contract; Restitution for the benefits retained by the Defendant in unjust enrichment; Reasonable attorney fees and costs of this action; and Any other relief this court deems just and proper.”

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Maryland

Silver Spring Pride sign rebuilt in memory of beloved neighbor

GoFundMe campaign has raised more than $4,000

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Tony Brown's neighbors help repaint the Pride sign his late partner created in their Silver Spring, Md., neighborhood. (Photo courtesy of Molly Chehak)

Residents of Silver Spring’s Rosemary Hills neighborhood have come together to rebuild a Pride sign. 

The sign was constructed in June 2020, and was meant to stay in place throughout Pride Month. Neighborhood residents, however, requested it stay up past its intended month-long display, and has remained in place for more than four years. 

The sign spelling LOVE is at the neighborhood’s entrance between Sundale and Richmond Streets. It was made from plywood and the O was painted in the colors of the Pride flag.

“We wanted to take it down, but we just felt it was not ours anymore and belonged to the neighborhood.” Tony Brown told the Washington Blade during a telephone interview. “It was a positive thing for the neighborhood and began to take on a life of its own.” 

Brown and his partner, Mike Heffner, designed the sign and said the Black Lives Matter movement inspired them to create it as a strong symbol of an accepting community.

The sign was vandalized numerous times last fall, resulting in neighborhood residents taking turns repairing it. Brown and his partner could not do the repairs themselves because Heffner was fighting Stage 4 lung cancer.

Heffner passed away on Oct. 6, 2023.

A GoFundMe page was set up to help raise funds for the replacement Pride sign, and it has raised more than $4,000. The replacement sign is more permanent and made of metal.

“I can’t speak for the neighborhood overall, but people who knew Mike I think are happy that we were able to honor his memory with this sign because this sign is so him,” Molly Chehak, a friend who lives next door to Brown, told the Blade. “He (Heffner) was an outgoing super social (person) who just made you feel good the way this sign does. It’s a perfect tribute to him.” 

Chehak and other neighbors created the GoFundMe account.

Heffner’s family and his neighbors are still working to rebuild the Pride sign. It has become a memorial to Heffner.

“We wanted to do one that was clearly a Pride reference,” said Brown, noting the L is a fully painted Pride flag that spirals across the entire letter. 

“For the O we wanted to do something reminiscent of times in the past, a throwback to the 60’s and 70’s so it’s a hippie montage of flowers and butterflies,” he said. 

Brown described the V as being colorful, nonbinary people hugging each other with the idea that love is more than what one may see. 

“During COVID, he had started painting rocks and putting kind and fun messages on them leaving them around places as sort of a pay it forward Karma and so the E is basically that stylized writing and to embrace a bunch of ways we embrace love,” he said. 

The final letter had the phrase “love is love” written repeatedly in various handwritings to pay homage to Heffner and what he did for his neighborhood during the pandemic. Brown’s four daughters — one of whom is a professional artist — and their friends designed it.

The landscape around the sign has also been transformed with rocks that honors Heffner’s love for Rosemary Hills and his passion for rocks.

Chehak also said Heffner always wanted a bench, and neighbors are looking to install one soon next to the Pride sign.

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