I have known Joel Burns for almost 10 years — several years longer than he has been on the Fort Worth City Council.
My wife and I met Joel and his husband, J.D. Angle, through mutual friends back when Joel and J.D. still lived in their beautifully restored home in the same East Fort Worth neighborhood where my wife and I and our children lived. I saw them then as the perfect couple: happy, handsome, healthy men with a beautiful home and great jobs. I knew they had great things ahead of them.
Then they moved to another beautifully restored older home in an historic neighborhood just south of downtown Fort Worth, and Joel ran for City Council. I was so happy when he was elected, because I believed that not only would Joel be a good representative for his constituents in District 9, but that he would also be a good representative for the LGBT community.
I think the fact that no one even stepped up to oppose Joel when he ran for re-election in 2009 shows that his constituents, overall, believe he is doing a good job on the City Council. But last night — Tuesday, Oct. 12 — during the weekly Fort Worth City Council meeting, Joel proved without a doubt that he also represents his LGBT community, and he proved why it is so important to have openly LGBT elected officials at all levels of government.
At each council meeting, council members are given a few minutes each at the start of the meeting to make announcements and to recognize people from their districts who have done something outstanding. Last night, Joel took his time to talk about the recent suicides of several LGBT youth — and to tell his own very personal and very powerful story.
After recounting the stories of several young men who have taken their own lives in recent weeks after being subjected to anti-gay bullying and harassment, Joel told his fellow councilmembers and those in the council chambers that he was about to tell them something he had never told anyone before — not even his parents or his husband. And then, struggling through his own tears, he told them of the day when he was a 9th grader at Crowley High School and a group of older teens accosted him and “roughed him up.”
“They said that I was a faggot, and that I should die and go to hell where I belonged. That erupted the fear that I had kept pushed down, that what I was beginning to feel on the inside must somehow be showing on the outside. Ashamed, humiliated and confused, I went home. There must be something very wrong with me, I thought, something I could never let my family or anyone else know,” he recalled.
Joel broke down then, and acknowledged that he couldn’t actually bring himself to read aloud the next couple of sentences he had written that described his own near suicide attempt. “I, don’t want my mother and father to have to bear the pain of having to hear … hear me say the …” He couldn’t finish the sentence.
When he regained his composure enough to continue, Joel said: “So I will just say, and I will skip ahead, I have never told this story to anyone before tonight. Not my family, not my husband, not anyone. But the number of suicides in recent days have upset me so much, they have just torn at my heart. And even though there may be some political repercussions for telling my story, the story is not just for the adults who might choose or not choose to support me. The story is for the young people who might be holding that gun tonight. Or the rope. Or the pill bottle. You need to know that the story doesn’t end where I didn’t tell it on that unfortunate day. There is so, so, so much more.
“Yes, high school was difficult. Coming out was painful. But life got so much better for me. And I want to tell any teen that might see this: Give yourself a chance to see just how much better life will get. And it will get better. You will get out of the household that doesn’t accept you. You will get out of that high school, and you never have to deal with those jerks again if you don’t want to. You will find and you will make new friends who will understand you. And life will get so, so, so much better.”
Joel then talked about all the happy memories that fill his life now, from the first time he ever saw his future husband, to the day he asked J.D. to spend his life with him, to winning his first election to just a few days ago when he sat with his father after his father came out of surgery, and his father told him how happy he was to have Joel there with him.
He said: To those who are feeling very alone tonight, please know that I understand how you feel, that things will get easier. Please stick around to make those happy memories for yourself. It may not seem like it tonight, but they will. And the attitudes of society will change. Please, live long enough to be there to see it.”
Joel ended by encouraging anyone who needs help or resources to deal with the issue of LGBT teen suicide to contact TheTrevorProject.org or to call him directly at 817-392-8809. “And you can call me, and I will get you whatever resources you need,” he promised.
As Joel finished, his fellow councilmember and friend Kathleen Hicks led the rest of the council and those in the council chambers in a standing ovation for Joel and his courage. I think he deserves a standing ovation from all of us, as well. Because last night, Joel Burns did us all proud, and maybe — just maybe — he helped save someone’s life.
Watch video of Joel’s speech to the council below: