Burns, Hicks unopposed in FW council races

Fort Worth City Councilmembers Joel Burns and Kathleen Hicks are unopposed in their 2011 re-election bids.

Yesterday (Monday, March 14) was the filing deadline for area municipal elections, and it’s official: Fort Worth’s first and only openly gay City Council member, Joel Burns, is unopposed in his second re-election bid since first winning the District 9 seat on the council in 2007 when he ran to replace Wendy Davis. Davis resigned to run for — and win — the District 10 seat in the Texas Senate.

In addition, the deadline passed without anyone filing to challenge Fort Worth’s District 8 incumbent, Kathleen Hicks, either. Hicks, who represents the district in which the Rainbow Lounge is located, has been a steadfast ally of the LGBT community, especially in the months since the June 29, 2009 raid on Rainbow Lounge.

W.B. “Zim” Zimmerman, the District 3 incumbent, also has no opponent. Zimmerman, along with Burns, Hicks, District 2 incumbent Sal Espino, District 5 incumbent Frank Moss and Mayor Mike Moncrief voted in October 2009 to add protections based on gender expression and gender identity to the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance. Espino has one opponent, Paul L. Rudisill, in the May 14 election, and Moss has two opponents: Charles Hibbler and Rickie Clark.

Moncrief is not seeking re-election, and a crowded field of five candidates have filed to replace him. They are Jim Lane, Betsy Price, Cathy Hirt, Dan Barrett and Nicholas Zebrun.

The three councilmembers who voted against the transgender protections all face opponents in this election. Mayor Pro-Tem Danny Scarth is being challenged by Lupe Arriola in District 2. And in District 6, incumbent Jungus Jordan is being challenged by Tolli Thomas. District 7 incumbent Carter Burdette is not running for re-election, and five candidates are running to replace him. They are Dennis Shingleton, Jonathan Horton, Jack Ernest, Jon Perry and Lee Henderson.

For more information on candidates in the Fort Worth city elections, check out the Fort Worth City Secretary’s Elections Page.

And look for an in-depth story on the mayor’s race in an upcoming issue of Dallas Voice.

—  admin

A week before the Super Bowl, gay candidate kicks off City Council bid in host city Arlington

Hightower in his fourth-grade Hill Highlander uniform.

A week before Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, openly gay Realtor Chris Hightower is set to kick off his campaign for the District 5 seat on the City Council.

According to the Washington, D.C.-based Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, which has endorsed Hightower, he would be the first openly gay city councilmember in Arlington’s history.

Chris Hightower

Hightower is an Arlington native who is the son of former Democratic State Rep. Paula Pierson. He lives with his partner in the historic “azalea house” at Park Row and Davis, according to his campaign website:

I am running for City Council because I love Arlington,” Hightower writes. “From the classrooms of my childhood to the elected offices of today, I have witnessed firsthand what good can come from the hard work of those who care about our hometown. They have made this city into the place that I love. Now, it is time for my generation to step forward and provide leadership for our city’s future just as the generations before us have. It is my hope that children living in Arlington today choose to stay here and raise their families — not because they see the great things I saw in our city while I was growing up, but because they saw something even better.”

Hightower is trying to unseat District 5 incumbent Lana Wolff, who is seeking a fifth term on the council. Other candidates expected to run in District 5 include attorney Terry Meza and UTA student Christopher McCain.

According to his Facebook page, Hightower will host a kickoff party at 7 p.m. this Saturday, Jan. 29 at 2316 Woodsong Trail in Arlington.

He becomes the second candidate from Texas endorsed by the Victory Fund this year, joining Fort Worth Councilman Joel Burns, who’s seeking re-election to his District 9 seat.

The other known openly gay candidate in North Texas is James Nowlin, who plans to run for the District 14 seat on the Dallas City Council if incumbent Angela Hunt steps down to run for mayor.

—  John Wright

LGBT Person of the Year: Joel Burns

Fort Worth’s gay City Councilman put an ‘everyman’ face on the issue of bullying and teen suicide — and the world took notice

Arnold Wayne Jones  |  jones@dallasvoice.com

Joel-Burns-1
A TEXAS STAR | Fort Worth Councilman Joel Burns speaks about the importance of anti-bullying legislation during a press conference Dec. 13, in Austin calling for passage of such a measure during the upcoming session of the Texas Legislature. Dennis Coleman, executive director of Equality Texas, said Burns’ Oct. 12 speech on his personal experiences being bullied put a face on the issue to which everyday people can relate. (Tammye Nash/Dallas Voice)

Joel Burns had enjoyed his share of viral videos, from Susan Boyle to pets who appear to play piano. But he never suspected he’d become one. But last October, that’s exactly what happened. The Fort Worth councilman, who is openly gay, was moved by a string of teen suicides across the nation, many as a result of anti-gay bullying.

But one in particular hit home: The death of Keith Harrington who, after attending a Norman, Okla., city council meeting, took his own life in despair.

“I wrote it all that day,” Burns says of the speech he delivered on the evening of Oct. 12. “Tuesday at lunch I wrote it and read the first draft of it [live at the council meeting]. Had I had any inkling that this would go the way it did I would have tightened it up. But it has a rawness to it.”

Indeed it does, as Burns recounts, for 12 fascinating minutes, a never-before-discussed incident in his youth where he was bullied.

It brought Burns to tears; it brought everyone watching at City Hall that night to their feet in applause.
And though it happened at the same time as the “It Gets Better” campaign was expanding, that was not Burns’ intent at all.

“No, it was not one of those,” Burns said last week from his council office. “I hadn’t seen any of them but had read Dan Savage was doing something like that. My comments were first and foremost made at City Council; that they got uploaded to YouTube was secondary.

“I knew that what I was saying was being recorded and it might be used in the future — maybe at a high school in the district I represent — but not what it became.”

And what it became, simply, was a sensation: 2.5 million views on the main YouTube posting alone, with thousands upon thousands more in follow-up posts, comments and links by others … not to mention excerpts broadcast nationally for weeks on MSNBC, The Today Show, Ellen DeGeneres, CNN and hosts of other media outlets.

Everyman

For a while this fall, you almost couldn’t escape the name and face of Joel Burns — even if you weren’t gay or from North Texas.

And his was a face that people could relate to, a fact that gave his message even more weight with many.

State Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth — who represented District 9, which Burns now represents, before stepping down at the start of 2008 to run for the Senate — called Burns “a uniquely capable public servant” to whom people can relate easily.

Joel-Burns-2
Joel Burns, right, and his husband, J.D. Angle

“I would say that he left his ego at the door when he entered public office, but he never brought it with him at all, actually,” Davis said of Burns. “He is down to earth, genuine and sincere about everything he does. It is rare that he enters a room, a restaurant, a neighborhood gathering, where he is not received by warm hugs.”

She continued, “The people that he represents understand that he cares about them, and they care about him in return. He has an actual ‘relationship’ with the people that he represents, which is, unfortunately, rare in political leaders. Though his warmth and humor endear him to people, he is loved more because he is a leader who is not afraid to stand strong for the issues he cares about.”

Burns’ everyman appeal resonates beyond the boundaries of District 9, and that’s what gave his speech such impact around the country, said Dennis Coleman, executive director of Equality Texas.

“The thing about [Burns’ speech] is that he is a very likeable person,” Coleman said. “The thing that made it resonate with people so strongly is that he is an everyday person doing a very public job.

“There are a lot of celebrities who have talked about bullying and suicide. But this was someone from a small town in Texas who was talking about his personal experiences, talking to his colleagues about what he had been through. There was genuine feeling to it.”

Burns’ speech that night during the council meeting was not something planned in advance and worked on by speechwriters or aides. The councilman decided only hours before to speak out, and scribbled his remarks down during his lunch hour.

And it was that sense of immediacy and personal conviction that made it stand out, Coleman said.

“His speech was very raw. It was very honest. That’s an interesting thing to see from a public figure,” Coleman said. “And the timing was perfect. He tied it to something that was very personal, and he tied it to something that was very ‘right now;’ he tied it to the death of the young man who committed suicide after hearing so much hate at a city council meeting [in Oklahoma]. All those elements made it very, very real for a lot of people.”

The LGBT community could have hardly chosen a better spokesman if it had tried. Smart, handsome, articulate and sincere with a soft but authoritative Texas voice, Burns exudes gay Pride in its most prosaic incarnation.

Where mainstream media often portrays gay culture in stereotypes, Burns showed a face that Middle America may not have seen before. And that presence as a role model is what made him the effortless choice as Dallas Voice’s local LGBT Person of the Year.

While Burns himself is local, the reach of his message proved to be national, even international. But as he did it, Burns had little idea what it would become.

“I got up the very next morning and went on with my life the way I normally would,” Burns said. “I had two back-to-back appointments starting at 8 a.m., then I came home. J.D. [Angle, Burns’ husband] was sitting in the bed when I came back from speaking to the gay-straight alliance at UT. He said, ‘You know you’ve got 5,000 people who have viewed this since it was posted at 5 a.m.’

“Before I left at noon, I got 1,000 Facebook ‘friend’ requests. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God — how did that happen?’”

The story of how the video made it to YouTube is a strange one. All of Fort Worth’s council meetings are recorded and streamed live on the Internet. Chris Hawes, the WFAA reporter covering Fort Worth city hall, had already posted her story for the day but continued to watch the stream. When she saw Burns’ confessional recollection of childhood bullying, she dropped the story she’d already filed and went live. But Burns was not available.

“We had another five hours worth of council meeting that night,” Burns said. “I was busy with zoning cases.”

Burns learned of the report and stepped out of the meeting long enough to warn his parents that a story about bullying and teenage suicide would be about him. “I said, ‘There’s some content that comes from a very personal standpoint.’

“I knew when it aired — right after, both my phones blew up. Todd Camp [ironically, Dallas Voice’s first LGBT Person of the Year last year] was texting me saying ‘What are you gonna do with this? Will you put on YouTube?’ I said, ‘Yes eventually.’ He said, ‘No, you need to do it now. I will come up to City Hall and do it for you if you’ll just get a copy to your council aide.’”

Camp and Kyle Trentham finally got it uploaded at 5 a.m., Wed., Oct. 13. Before the day was over, Burns had spoken to CNN, CBS and scores of other outlets. He was soon on a flight to New York City for appearances on The Today Show and other programs.

Then Ellen called.

The whole experience ended up being “kinda strange,” he said. “Walking down the street in Portland, Ore., someone said, ‘Hey, are you the dude that cried?’ On the street in New York City [a day after the story broke], people would stop me and ask if I was from Texas.”

There have been other surreal moments. At the beginning, Burns was surviving on few hours’ sleep, traveling constantly and doing interview after interview.

“Honestly, during the interviews on Today and Ellen there was such a crush of activity, I was probably not as present for that experience as I should have been,” he said. While waiting in the wings of DeGeneres’ show, “I thought, ‘Holy crap! I am about to meet Ellen! I hope I’m able to speak English.’”

But far beyond the celebrity it brought him was the gratification of affecting so many lives in concrete ways.

“The experience of talking to the kids and various people who have e-mailed me is the best part,” Burns said. “A couple weeks ago, I got an envelope that said nothing but ‘Joel Burns, Fort Worth, Texas’ — no postmark or return address. Inside was a torn up piece of paper and a note that said, ‘This is the remains of the letter I left for my roommate to find with my body. After seeing your video, I burned all but this piece. You saved my life.’”

“All of the e-mails were uniformly positive. My dad was worried — he said, ‘You need to get a security system and lock your doors,’ but honestly, that hasn’t happened. Walking on the set of Today is slightly unnerving, but no one’s threatened me or scared me. It’s kind of hard to be for bullying and teenaged suicide.”

Hard, but not impossible, as KLIF shock jock Chris Krok proved. He assailed Burns for wasting councilmembers’ time with his story and “lying” by referring to Angle as his “husband.”

Krok also affected a lisp mocking Burns’ tearful monologue. Burns says, so far as he can tell, Krok was the only person to actively attack him for the speech.

“He was trying to capitalize on it, to get attention,” Burns said dismissively. “He was doing what he could to draw attention. But he’s the only one I’m aware of. There were supposed to be protests at City Hall but that never materialized.”

Burns opened his speech that night by acknowledging that he could be torpedoing his future in politics. But he felt that bringing attention to the issue of bullying and teen suicide and saving maybe even one life was worth it.

And the risk he was taking didn’t go unnoticed.

Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief, speaking after Burns at that Oct. 12 council meeting, said it plainly:

“I have witnessed a lot of things over my 30 years of public service … but I have never seen anything as courageous as what I saw tonight,” Moncrief said to Burns. “Obviously, you spoke from the heart and you touched every heart in this room. No matter how big and tough you are, that touched you, in some shape, form or fashion.”

While some critics, like Krok, said the council meeting wasn’t an appropriate forum for Burns’ remarks, Moncrief, in his response that night, insisted otherwise.

“It is something that needs to be addressed,” the mayor said. “Young people, especially, are entitled to a chance — a chance to enjoy a childhood, a chance to enjoy looking forward to the next challenges in their life. It is only through people like yourself, who will speak out from experience — not from reading a book, not from watching a movie — from experience, [that change will happen. Experience] is always the best teacher. It teaches those lessons way down deep.

“And it takes a special courage to reach down deep to pull those things out and express them. I thank you for what you said and I thank you for how you said it,” Moncrief told Burns.

And people obviously have taken note of that courage and responded to help create the change Burn called for. In fact, earlier this month, Davis prefiled a bill in the Texas House  of Representatives to create a comprehensive statewide approach to bullying in public schools. She credited Burns’ speech with being the impetus.

“I am proud to have filed a bill in the Texas Legislature that attempts to have a positive impact on this issue, and I am particularly proud to do this in response to Joel’s personal story and the awareness he raised in all of us regarding teen suicides that occur as a result of bullying,” Davis said.

And Coleman said Equality Texas is proud to be able to work with Burns to get Davis’ legislation passed. In fact, Equality Texas invited Burns to go to Austin on Dec. 13 to speak at the press conference during which the organization launched its efforts to pass the anti-bullying bill.

“As the statewide organization, having someone who can put a face on this very serious issue was important for us, and we feel it was very appropriate to have [Burns] at the press conference. But we didn’t invite him to participate as a councilman from Fort Worth. We invited as Joel Burns to participate as a Texan who himself experienced bullying when he was growing up,”Coleman said.

While many people have focused on the changes Burns’ speech has made in others’ lives, Burns acknowledged that what happened that night and since has changed his life, as well.

“I am a little more mindful of some things that others would perceive as bigger picture stuff. Instead of getting hunkered down in resolving our pension crisis or fixing our budget for next year, it kind of pulls you up a little bit out of the [minutiae] of everyday life.

“You hear these stories and it fills me with, I don’t know what to call it, contentment? It has instilled a sense of who I am at 41 that was not present to prior to the 12th of October. It makes me much less afraid. Whatever happens, happens. If I don’t get re-elected [in May], I know now I’ve had an amazing life — a lot better than many others out there.”

And his video has made life a lot better for countless others, too.

Senior Editor Tammye Nash contributed to this report.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 24, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas

Honoring our saints on All Hallows Eve

People like Bill Nelson, John Thomas, Bill Hunt and others are no longer with us now, and although we have a long way to go to gain full equality, it was their courage and daring that won the freedoms we already have today

Activists such as, from left, John Thomas, Bill Nelson and Bill Hunt may be gone now, but they should never be forgotten.
Activists such as, from left, John Thomas, Bill Nelson and Bill Hunt may be gone now, but they should never be forgotten.

Like many of our holidays, Halloween bears scant resemblance to the holy day from which it evolved. Oct. 31 is the eve of the day the church historically has celebrated as All Saints Day. Like many church holidays, this one was deliberately set to co-opt the pagan celebration of harvest called Samhain.

Neither of those days have much relevance to how our community now observes Oct. 31, though. Still, perhaps this is a good time for us to remember some of our “saints” of the past who at times terrorized the general population with their outrageous demands for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.

Our movement was begun officially with the Stonewall “Riots.” That story often gets told without noting that those who first resisted police oppression and brutality were mostly poor, people of color, drag queens and transsexuals.

They were our heroes. I’ll call them saints, since most of them are now dead.

The summer of 1969 was a long time ago, and it was on the far side of an epidemic that made saints out of too many of our heroes.

When I first came to Dallas in 1987, we often took to the streets. It seemed that every time I turned around William Waybourn, then president of the Dallas Gay Alliance, would call me and say, “Get your collar [clergy shirt] on and meet us at ______. We need you to speak about ______.”

I usually would follow Bill Nelson or John Thomas or Bill Hunt or some of the other heroes who spoke up for us. They are all saints now, and, somehow, I think each of them would appreciate being remembered on Halloween/All Hallows (saints) Eve.

Dallas is a very different city today. We have had openly gay city council members, school board trustees, county commissioners and an out, lesbian Latina sheriff.

Although it was 10 years ago, it seems like only yesterday that some heroes and saints were at City Hall until 2 in the morning fighting the Dallas Policy Academy’s dismissal of Mica England because she was a lesbian.

Many of those faces from that night are gone, but so is the city’s policy of discrimination.

Some of them were the same faces who went to the courthouse to protest against Judge Jack Hampton who gave a lighter sentence to Richard Lee Bednarski because the men he murdered were gay. On more than one occasion, we went to Parkland hospital because people who were dying of AIDS were forced to wait as long as 18 hours to receive care.

Folks like Howie Daire and Daryl Moore and so many others knew that they weren’t fighting for themselves, but for those who would survive them.

Recently, one of my best friends turned 50. He is one of the longest-term survivors of HIV/AIDS in the country. I give thanks for him and his health every day, and I also try to give thanks for those who now survive in our hearts and memories.

If we fail to appreciate those who went before us and made such great sacrifices for us all, then we are arrogant and cynical souls.

When the AIDS crisis was at its worst and it seemed we were holding funerals every other day, I began to think I was losing my mind.

I’d drive through the crossroads and raise my hand to wave at a friend, only to recall that it couldn’t be them because they had died.
I wonder though … .

Maybe I am crazy, but when I walk those streets today, I’d swear that some of those folks are still there. Maybe I’m the only one they haunt, but I hope not. I hope we all hold their memories so dear that it is almost like they are still with us.
So, dress up and join the parade this Halloween. It will be audacious and fun to take to the streets and party like free women and men.
Just remember that your freedom was won by heroes, many of whom are now saints. And don’t forget to wonder for whom you should be a hero and, eventually, a saint.

The Rev. Michael Piazza is president of Hope for Peace & Justice, a nonprofit organization that is equipping progressive people of faith to be champions for peace and justice. He also serves as co-executive director of the Center for Progressive Renewal, which is renewing progressive Christianity by training new entrepreneurial leaders, supporting the birth of new liberal/progressive congregations, and by renewing and strengthening existing progressive churches. He served the Cathedral of Hope for 22 years, first as senior pastor and later as dean.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 29, 2010

—  Kevin Thomas

Gay publishers ante up for World Series

Is it just us or does Giants closer Brian Wilson look like someone you’d run into at the Dallas Eagle?

Dallas Voice Publisher Robert Moore felt left out last week, after the publisher of New York City’s Gay City News refused to make a friendly, legal wager on the Rangers-Yankees series. I won’t repeat Robert’s exact comments here, but basically, the publishers of San Francisco’s Bay Area Reporter and The Philadelphia Gay News had bet on the National League Championship Series, and Robert badly wanted a piece of the action.

Well, good things come to those who wait, and thanks to the Rangers first-ever World Series berth, Moore is finally getting in. Moore and Bay Area Reporter Publisher Thomas E. Horn have agreed that the loser will contribute $1,000 to a charity in the winner’s city and appear in the opposing team’s gear in a photograph to be published in the winner’s newspaper.

And while these are some pretty high stakes already, we’d also like to see Moore don a leather-daddy beard a la Giants closer Brian Wilson should the Rangers lose.

—  John Wright

Gay for pay

GayTravel.com kicked off its tour in Dallas with new queer travel guru Nick Vivion

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor jones@dallasvoice.com

ON THE ROAD  |  Nick Vivion spent family time in Dallas but never doin’ gay stuff.’ Now as the GayTravel.com guru, all he does is the gay stuff. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)
ON THE ROAD | Nick Vivion spent family time in Dallas but never doin’ gay stuff.’ Now as the GayTravel.com guru, all he does is the gay stuff. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

Nick Vivion’s grandparents were from Dallas, so he visited the city many times when he was younger. “But I’d never been here doing gay stuff,” he says.
That changed last week. In a big way.

It might not be MacArthur returning to the Philippines, but Vivion marched victorious to his old family haunts with great fanfare, as Dallas was the first stop on the GayTravel.com “Travel Guru” tour. And Vivion is the guru.

In some way, it’s a far cry from where the 27-year-old Seattle resident imagined he’d be back in college. He went to school hoping to become a movie director of features, “like Spielberg.” Then he discovered documentary filmmaking and his outlook changed. “There are so many good stories out there you don’t have to make up,” he says.

His interest in filmmaking, photography and travel led to a passion and his livelihood since graduation: Making travel videos for Lonely Planet and YouTube, where his videos scored more than a million hits.

“I’ve been traveling doing films for about four years,” he says. “It is my profession.”

So when he heard that GayTravel.com was holding a contest to find an ambassador to scour the globe coming up with unique stories about gay destinations, he threw his hat in the ring.

“This is not the first travel contest I’ve applied to — probably the 12th or 13th,” he says. But it did seem like a good fit: GayTravel.com wanted a gay guy to do gay city tours. Still, it did require a leap of faith.

“I had always been reluctant to be the gay host or the gay travel guy. Then Prop 8 happened and that changed my perspective a little bit. I saw that I have the ability to capture the essence of what it means to be gay, to get paid to do what I do and share the gay experience a little more.”

Vivion won the contest during a competition last month in Las Vegas, where finalists were told to make a good travel video within 36 hours of touring the city. His product, plus an interview that was included a pageant-y question-and-answer portion, cinched his victory.

Dallas had dibs to be the first city on the tour, and Vivion had hoped to be here for Pride, but the timing was too tight. Instead, he launched his tour last Thursday, spending five days exploring everything from the Strip to the State Fair.

“I had a lot of fun at Gay Bingo — it was a blast to be silly with Jenna Skyy,” he says. “I have a lot of respect for drag queens and what they do, and she’s one of the best I’ve ever seen at being witty without being mean — very even-handed. And just to see the energy of so any people coming out for it, so many people to continue to support it was inspiring.”

Vivion admits he was a bit unprepared for the first leg of his trip — “It’s a blur” — but over the course of his six-month commitment as the guru, he hopes all the cities are as welcoming as Dallas proved to be.

“I’m hoping to kind of find good content about gay destinations. There will be plenty of nightlife coverage but I’m not trying to talk just about places to get drunk. In the end, it’s about inspiring people to travel. That’s what’s important to me.”

Vivion went from Dallas to Santa Fe with plans to spend Halloween in New Orleans. You can follow his tour — and see what he has to say about Dallas — at GayTravel.com.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 22, 2010

—  Kevin Thomas