It was a serious national publication, based in Boston, and he would consume it each week when it arrived on campus. “And I thought, ‘I'm going to move to Boston, and I'm going to go work at that newspaper,’” Burns recalled.
He did and became the managing editor. In that position and in his life outside his career, Burns was a gay-rights activist during a time of heated action against blatant injustices.
The Gay Community News would send its paper to any federal prison inmate who requested one — until the prison system banned the dry, legalistic publication as pornographic. Fighting back, the newspaper and the National Gay Task Force sued the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and won. Lambda Legal, then in its early years, represented the plaintiffs. Lambda remains a leading force in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights.
In 1978, as he was running the newspaper, Burns became the founding board president of GLAD, now another influential advocate for and defender of LGBTQ+ rights. (Years later, the now-acclaimed civil rights lawyer Mary Bonauto ’83, would go to work for GLAD. Bonauto was instrumental in winning the struggle for same-sex marriage.)
In 1980, at age 25, Burns joined the Lambda board; his experiences with those lawyers and the law propelled him into the Northeastern University School of Law and a career as an attorney — until the urgency of the times pulled him in another direction. The AIDS epidemic was raging.
“It's not an exaggeration to say we thought we could all die, and I had friends who did die very quickly,” Burns said. “And so thinking about what you want to do with your life and with the time you're given becomes suddenly a very powerful question at a younger age than it might have otherwise been. And that question came to me, and the answer was clear.”
In 1986, he become the first executive director of what is now the New York City Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center, a nexus of activism and the birthplace of the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, better known as ACT UP. Burns led the center for 22 years, until 2009.
He’s built a career as a nonprofit management consultant and executive coach and serves as the interim executive director of the Johnson Family Foundation. As an activist, his focus is the new American LGBTQ+ Museum that is scheduled to open in 2024 in New York City. He’s the founding board chair.
For years, Burns said, activists had discussed the need for a museum of LGBTQ history and culture, and the effort picked up steam after the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage. In January 2017, he was among a group that brought the vision to life, securing a charter from the state, funding, and a partnership with the venerable New York Historical Society. The museum will make its home on the top floor of a 70,000-square-foot addition to the society’s building.
Burns sees the museum as a necessary element in a continuous effort on behalf of LGTBQ+ rights.
“Any justice movement, any social-change movement, a key piece of it is culture, because you change many more hearts and minds through culture than you do through legal arguments,” Burns said. “And so therefore, we realized we need to be not just preserving our LGBTQ history, but we've got to be celebrating it, exhibiting it, interrogating what we did wrong, and elevating it into the minds of rising generations of queer people and straight people who are going to be the next generation of activist leaders.”