May 20, 2020 at 10:20 am EDT | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
LGBTQ rights advocate John Burlison dies at 69
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.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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