Pride 2011 • Joel Burns: The difference a speech makes

When Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns followed his heart and spoke at a council meeting about his experiences as a bullied gay teen, the nation listened — and, he hopes, it helped make things get better

Burns.Joel
Joel Burns

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer
taffet@dallasvoice.com

Honorary Grand Marshall

When Joel Burns made a speech to the Fort Worth City Council about his experiences being bullied as a teenager, he had no idea the kind of impact his words would have on people around this country.

But a year later, when organizers of the Alan Ross Texas Freedom Parade chose “It Only Gets Better,” as the parade theme, Burns was the obvious choice for honorary grand marshal.

Burns said that his husband, J.D. Angle, calls the day Burns spoke at the council, “the day I blew up our lives.”

In some ways, that speech also blew up Fort Worth City Hall.

Burns received so many emails in the days following his emotional speech that the city had to replace its email server.

The phone system was so overwhelmed that it also had to be replaced.

And Burns’ office was so busy answering calls and replying to messages from teens from across the country who were bullied that the mayor’s office was running messages to him.

During a speech at the recent national convention of LEAGUE, the LGBT employee resource group for AT&T, Burns joked about what he learned from his sudden celebrity: “Between Ellen [DeGeneres] and Matt Lauer, Ellen’s the better kisser,” he said.

But on a serious side, Burns recalled receiving a torn piece of paper from a teen. It was what would have been the rest of a suicide note, which the teen decided not to finish after seeing Burns’ video.

“This is what remains of the note I left my roommate. Thank you,” the young man wrote to Burns.

Burns said that he wishes he could go back in time and tell his 13-year-old self that it really does get better.

He said that he believes that as human beings, we are drawn to bold action. But during our lives we tamp that impulse down. We learn that there are sometimes consequences and so we decide not to speak out, he said.

As a councilman, “My job is to fill potholes,” Burns said. “That’s what I’m supposed to do.”

But last year he started hearing about young people taking their lives. He mentioned Asher Brown in Houston and a teen in Indiana who hung himself in his family’s barn. Then came another suicide in California, then Zack Harrington who killed himself after hearing anti-gay hate speech at a city council meeting in Norman, Okla.

“Someone should do something about this,” Burns said he told himself.

The Fort Worth City Council meets on Tuesday evenings with pre-council meetings held throughout the day. When Burns decided to tell his story, he told Angle, who advised against it.

“But I remember what it was like to be 13 and beaten up,” Burns said.

So when Angle realized there was no stopping Burns, he suggested that his partner write his speech down.

“J.D. said I suck extemporaneously,” Burns explained.

So Burns went home from the pre-council meeting and wrote a stream-of-consciousness account of what happened to him as a teenager. He said he had hoped to reach a few hundred people — those that actually watch Fort Worth City Council meetings online and those that sit through council meetings at City Hall.

But then local TV news stations broadcast portions of his speech, and then it was posted to YouTube. Burns called his parents as soon as he realized more people than just Fort Worth City Council junkies were watching it.

Inside Edition showed up at his parent’s house the next day.

Burns said that he’s closer to his family now than he’s ever been. He laughed about his parents’ differing reactions. He said his mother asked him if there was anything they could have done better and his father told him, “You need an alarm. And a gun.”

Burns said he had an hour-and-a-half conversation with his brother Cody that week as well, the longest conversation they had ever had. His brother was 15 years younger and so Burns was already out of the house through most of Cody’s life.

Burns said he cherishes that talk even more now because in March his brother was killed in a car accident.

When Burns spoke to the LEAGUE national convention in Dallas on Sept. 10, everyone attending had seen the YouTube video from the council meeting. As Burns told them the story behind the speech, the reaction was very emotional.

“I got beaten up everyday, not because I was gay but because I was Hispanic,” said Ernie Renteria, a LEAGUE member from Austin.

LEAGUE member Darrin Chin was attending from Los Angeles and said he first heard of Burns after speech at the council meeting.

“He’s a very inspiring person,” Chin said.

Chin and his partner have a 15-year-old adopted son. He said his son came out last year and they worry about him being the target of bullying.

Josh Hampshire of Bay City, Mich. said he was called everything from “sissy to the f-bomb. I was shoved into plenty of lockers.”

For him, he said, Burns’ speech really hit home.

“As someone who’s been on the edge, it really does get better,” Hampshire said. “I’m glad someone is looking out for our youth.”

One of LEAGUE’s youngest members is John Wakim of Providence, R.I. At 22, he’s already been with AT&T for five years. He said the company gives him a place where he feels safe for the first time in his life.

“I think everyone was bullied at school,” Wakim said. He agreed that things do get better for LGBT youth and that he can really relate to Burns’ story.

Burns said he has no idea how many young people may have benefited from his speech during the council meeting that night and his many appearances afterwards. But from the volume of calls and emails he has received, he said he does believe he’s made a difference.

But Burns said he is determined to not just use the video that went viral as platform for personal fame. He wants to make a real difference.

So when the Texas Legislature was in session this year, Burns lobbied House and Senate members with the parents of teen suicide victims Asher Brown. He said spending time with them was an honor, and Burns still tears up as he describes Asher’s mother’s anguish when she came home to a house wrapped in police tape.

In March, Burns also participated in a White House anti-bullying conference that he hopes will help set national standards for student safety in schools.

Burns said he is still surprised at the continued attention his council speech attracts, but that he realizes that his experience as a gay teen is a common one.

Burns said he learned from his experience that there are days that you’re supposed to fix the potholes but there’s a time when you have to speak out. He said that with two anti-bullying laws passed in Texas this year, “We’ve had amazing success here in Texas.”

For more information, go online to FortWorthGov.org/Government/District9.

To watch Joel Burns’ speech on being bullied, go to YouTube.com/Watch?v=ax96cghOnY4.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 16, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Sally Kern has a new website … or does she?

Sally Kern has a new website — SallyKern.com, also known as “Sally Kern: Bashing Gays for Jesus.”

Well, maybe it’s not hers. Maybe one of our readers just happened to notice that Kern had never registered her name as a domain, and neither had anyone else. Steve Rider deals in domain names regularly with his company, Steve’s Web Hosting (where you can also learn about the Gay Agenda).

“I have taken on Sally as a pet project,” said Rider, who describes himself as “a retired elderly homo with no respect for the Sanctity of Bigotry.”

Rider said when Kern first made national news with her “gays are more dangerous than Islam or terrorists” comment, “I discovered that she had never registered a dot-com domain in her name, so I took care of that for her.”

He has lots of fun stuff on the website, including a video from when Ellen Degeneres tried to call Kern on the air. And Wanda Sykes explaining she hopes Kern moves up in government so that she can pull the troops out of Iraq and attack West Hollywood.

In Kern’s new book, Stoning Sally Kern, she accuses the media of taking her out of context. Well, Ryder’s website allows you to hear her comments in their entirety. For example, let her tell you in her own words that blacks are in prison because they don’t want to work hard.

Oh, and in case you want more information about the book, Rider has registered Stoning Sally Kern as well.

In an interview this week with the conservative Tulsa Beacon, Kern compares same-sex marriage to marrying animals. The article describes Degeneres as “an avowed lesbian.”

But Kern explains that she doesn’t hate anyone. Everyone should have equal rights — it’s just that legislators should put biblical law before the Constitution.

“I am always being accused of hating homosexuals. I don’t hate anyone. This isn’t a matter of hating someone or trying to deny them their equal rights. All American citizens have equal rights under our Constitution. This is trying to get acceptance for a behavior that is specifically mentioned in God’s Word that is wrong.”

Kern’s book will be available on July 5. We’ve requested a review copy from the publisher.

—  David Taffet

WATCH: Lady Gaga performs ‘Judas’ on Ellen

Ellen had Lady Gaga on today and this “world premiere performance” of her latest single,”Judas.” A fairly simple performance with lots of line dancing, but in case you missed it, here you go.

—  Rich Lopez

More ‘scary’ stuff: Attack of the dancer

To follow along in the same vein as the “wild gorilla attack” prank video John Wright posted here earlier, let me share this video from Ellen DeGeneres’ show:

—  admin

Who’s your favorite lesbian?

How could U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, the first out lesbian elected to Congress, NOT be on anybody’s list of favorite lesbians?!

Who’s your favorite (celebrity) lesbian? AfterEllen.com wants to know. In fact, the website is currently conducting an online survey to find out “who ranks as the creme de la creme” when it comes to well-known lesbians. And AfterElton.com is doing the same survey, only with gay men.

Here are the rules: You get to vote for your favorite 10 open lesbians. They have to be women who are publicly out, not just ones that everyone knows are gay even though they have never said so publicly. They have to be living (so you can’t vote for Sappho). And they can come from any field, including politics, music, TV, movies, etc.

I went and voted and then I read some of the comments, and I have to say I was a bit disheartened to see that at least one person put Lindsey Lohan on the top 10 list. Lindsey Lohan? Give me a break! When we have women like Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin and Ellen DeGeneres to choose from, you’re gonna pick Lindsey Lohan? Come on people, get on over to AfterEllen.com and vote so that Lindsey Lohan won’t make the list!

Voting is open through midnight on Friday, March 4 and results will be published on Monday, March 14. And you can only vote once, so make it count!

—  admin

News flash: Gays more humane than straights

The Humane Society of the United States presents the Genesis Awards, similar to the GLAAD Media Awards, to recognize outstanding presentations of the humane treatment of animals. And it’s no surprise — at least not to me and the gay vegans I know that gay-run businesses and gay-themed shows figure prominently in this year’s finalists.

Among them: How to Train Your Dragon is up for best feature film (it’s produced by DreamWorks, which is owned by gay mogul David Geffen); True Blood is up for best dramatic series (created by gay Oscar winner Alan Ball and with plenty o’ queer vamps, pictured); the Sid Caesar Comedy Award is between gay-friendly shows The Colbert Report, The Simpsons and The Daily Show; and TV newsmagazine faces off gay host Anderson Cooper of AC360 again lesbian host Jane Velez-Mitchell of Issues with Jane Velez-Mitchell. And the schmancy Wyler Award goes to Kristin Davis of Sex and the City for her work bringing awareness to orphaned elephants. (It’s such a Charlotte thing to worry about orphaned elephants). Previous winners of the Wyler Award include Ellen DeGeneres and Portia Di Rossi.

The awards will be presented March 19 in Los Angeles.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Super Bowl XLV now officially gayest ever

First there was the Super Street Party on Cedar Springs, billed as the first-ever gay Super Bowl block party.

Then there was the Black-Eyed Peas and bisexual Fergie as halftime entertainment.

And now, to top it all off, the Village People — yes, those Village People — are slated to appear at Fair Park for an “XLV Party” a few nights before the big game, the Dallas Observer reports.

There’s no word on whether the Cedar Springs folks will try to get the Village People for the block party as well, since they’ll already be here and all. But either way, Super Bowl XLV is shaping up to be pretty darn queer. What’s next, Ellen DeGeneres as Fox’s sideline reporter? A special pregame screening of Glee on the big screen at Cowboys Stadium? Chely Wright singing the national anthem? Pastor Robert Jeffress performing the opening coin toss?

—  John Wright

WATCH: Madonna talks bullying on ‘Ellen’

In case you missed it, here’s the much tweeted-about appearance of Madonna on Ellen where she talks about bullying, teen suicides and how the gay community has helped her along the way.

—  Rich Lopez

Speaker at Fort Worth City Council meeting to ‘air disapproval’ of Joel Burns’ It Gets Better speech

Joel Burns

Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns has said repeatedly that he was moved to deliver his Oct. 12 It Gets Better speech when he read about the death of Zach Harrington, a gay teen who took his own life after hearing hateful anti-gay comments during a City Council meeting in Norman, Okla. Now, someone reportedly plans to protest Burns’ passionate speech — and undoubtedly make more hateful comments that could drive LGBT teens to suicide — during this Tuesday’s Fort Worth City Council meeting. Unbelievable.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported Sunday that at least one person plans to speak during Tuesday’s meeting to “air disapproval” of Burns’ speech four weeks ago. The brief report in The S-T doesn’t identify the person or persons who plan to speak. It also doesn’t say where the newspaper got the information, which is strange:

At least one person — and possibly more — plans to be in attendance to air disapproval of the much-talked-about speech by Councilman Joel Burns last month in council chambers.

Burns, the first openly gay council member, gained national attention after delivering a stirring address, in the wake of recent incidents, pleading with gay teens not to resort to suicide.

Video of the speech became an instant sensation online.

Within a week, more than 200,000 people had posted the link to the speech on Facebook, and a media tour followed. Burns appeared for interviews on CBS’ Early Show, CNN, the Today show on NBC and the Ellen DeGeneres Show.

Burns was among the speakers during Saturday night’s Black Tie Dinner in Dallas. Burns choked up as he talked about how he’d been contacted earlier in the day by Harrington’s father.

“Mr. Harrington said that Zach’s mom, a teacher, is having a particularly difficult time these days, and that he wishes he could let Zach know how much they miss him, but they can’t because he killed himself — after attending a City Council meeting,” Burns said. “As I said on Oct. 12, no child should be made to feel that they are without worth. Let us remind them of their value while we still can.”

Burns then led a moment of silence “in remembrance of the needless loss of teens who found the bullying too much to bear.”

Today we can add 14-year-old Brandon Bitner to the list of those teens.

Tuesday’s council meeting, should you wish to attend, is at 7 p.m. at Council Chambers at City Hall, 1000 Throckmorton St.

—  John Wright

Joel Burns nominated for Texan of the Year

Joel Burns

Gay Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns has been nominated for The Dallas Morning News’ Texan of the Year based on his inspiring “It Gets Better” speech, according to DMN editorial writer Rodger Jones.

Burns has already been interviewed by national media and by Ellen DeGeneres on her talk show in the wake of his 12-minute speech at a council meeting last month in which he talked about being bullied as a teenager and the time he considered taking his own life. Video of the speech quickly went viral and Burns became one of the most visible faces of the “It Gets Better” campaign.

Some of the other nominees are Southwest Airlines President Gary Kelly, philanthropist Elizabeth Shatto Massey, Texas Rangers President Nolan Ryan and, a separate nominee, the “entire Texas Rangers baseball team.”

Well, win or lose, I love me some Texas Rangers. But when it comes to Texan of the Year, Joel gets my vote.

—  admin