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