Gay councilman to leave post after 6 years to attend mid-career program at Kennedy School, but says he’s not done with public service
FORT WORTH — Councilman Joel Burns will leave the Fort Worth City Council this summer and head to Massachusetts for a year to pursue a mid-career master’s in public administration at the Harvard Kennedy School.
He announced his resignation Tuesday during a City Council meeting with family members, friends and former council staff in the audience.
“It has been a life-changing honor to serve my constituents, to serve my friends on the Fort Worth City Council,” Burns said. “It has been an experience beyond any I would have imagined.”
Burns was first elected in 2007 to replace Wendy Davis in District 9 when she resigned to run for the state Senate. He won his third full two-year term last year, becoming the city’s first official to run unopposed in an election three times in a row since the city moved to single-member districts in the 1970s.
The seat will be added to the May ballot to fill Burns’ term, which expires next June. He said he’ll continue to serve with pride until his replacement is elected and will focus on passing the bond package to bring parks and street improvements to the district.
Choking back tears, Burns said the decision to step down wasn’t an easy one and he hoped he’d be remembered for his work on economic development, safer neighborhoods and transportation initiatives.
Mayor Betsy Price said he’d be “greatly missed” on the council.
“You have been an advocate for everyone in your district, but more than that, you’re an advocate for all of the citizens of Fort Worth and a great example of what it means to have a service heart and a passion,” Price told him Tuesday. “You will be remembered for all the good that you have done and the people that you have touched in Fort Worth.”
His emotional resignation speech echoed the tune of his famous 2010 “It Gets Better” speech, where he addressed the council on the impact of anti-gay bullying he experienced attending Crowley High School, and he admitted that many people outside of Fort Worth may only remember him for that video. The YouTube video went viral, gaining national media attention and millions of views.
“I could have never guessed the impact and the way it would change my life, and it would change others’ lives by taking the mike that night and being honest and doing something bold that people didn’t expect of me,” he said.
In the three years since that speech, Burns said he’s received 20,000 emails and Facebook messages from people who were inspired by his words, “many of whom were hurting and wanted an adult or someone to assure them that there is reason not to lose hope.”
He’s also received mail, and he brought an example Tuesday. It was a piece of paper mailed to him at his council P.O. Box without a name or return address. In the corner is written “P.S. I burned the other part of this piece of paper. No one will have to read it now.”
“And on it, this is what remains of their suicide note, and they chose not to go through with it,” Burns said, his voice cracking. “There are a lot of kids in a world of hurt, and they are looking to the adults in this room and elsewhere to give them that hope. There is a lot more work to be done to make this the world that we want.”
Burns has become a national anti-bullying advocate, attending White House panels and lobbying in Austin for legislation that went into effect in 2012, requiring Texas school districts to track bullying and find solutions to address it. He was also a big supporter of Fort Worth Independent School District’s It’s Not Okay (INOK) program to combat bullying.
David Mack Henderson, president of LGBT advocacy group Fairness Fort Worth, said Burns’ work with the LGBT community will be remembered by those who will lead by his example.
“There’s a symbiotic relationship between a community and it’s members. Not only does Joel know this, he has nourished it,” Henderson said. “Coupled with profound gratitude for his work on behalf of our LGBT Community, perhaps his greatest local legacy will be seen through those he has inspired, and who now realize it’s time to also step forward in the leadership of our city. Joel is growing and preparing for new challenges. We must, and will honor him by following his example.”
Burns said it was the encouragement to do bold things at a three-week Kennedy School course he attended that, also with the rash of LGBT suicides in 2010, led him to make that speech. Since then, he’s returned to the school as a guest lecturer in the summer. Now he’ll head back there as a student again for the prestigious program. He said he’ll work alongside 200 public service leaders from around the world to help grow and nurture his passion for service.
As to what he’ll do once he returns is unclear.
“I don’t know what will happen,” he said. “I know that I’ll come back, and I know that I’ll be committed to seeing Fort Worth grow and become an even more fantastic place than it already is.”
Burns said politics may not be in his future again. He was a favorite to run for Davis’ Senate District 10 seat when she announced her gubernatorial bid. But he opted not to run because he’d have to leave the City Council and because of the time commitment on his family.
His longtime partner J.D. Angle is a political consultant working with Davis’ campaign. However, public service will always be a part of Burns’ life.
“I don’t know whether I will hold public office again. It’s not up to me. It’s up to voters,” he said. “I do know that serving my community will always be at the center of my life.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 14, 2014.