Chronicle blogger blames ‘It Gets Better” project for LGBT teen suicides

Kathleen McKinley

Kathleen McKinley

Kathy McKinley is a self-described “conservative activist” who blogs for the Houston Chronicle under the monicker “TexasSparkle.” In a recent post McKinley took the “It Gets Better” project to task for what she believes is their culpability in the suicides of LGBT teens:

“These kids were sold a bill of goods by people who thought they were being kind. The “It will get better” campaign just didn’t think it through. They didn’t think about the fact that kids are different from adults. They handle things differently. They react differently. Why? BECAUSE THEY ARE KIDS. You can grumble all day long how unfair it is that straight teens can be straight in high school, and gay kids can’t, but life is unfair. Isn’t the price they are paying too high?? Is it so much to ask them to stand at the door of adulthood before they “come out” publically? Because it may save their life.”

McKinnley’s primary confusion about the “It Gets Better” campaign (other than its name) is the assumption that the goal is to encourage teens to come out of the closet, or encourage them to become sexually active:

“Why in the world would you give teenagers a REASON to tease you? Oh, yes, because the adults tell you to embrace who you are, the only problem? Kids that age are just discovering who they are. They really have no idea yet. The adults tell you to “come out,” when what we should be telling them is that sex is for adults, and there is plenty of time for figuring out that later.”

I would like to encourage Ms. McKinley to watch the “It Gets Better” project’s founder Dan Savages’ video. Please, Ms. McKinley, listen, and tell me if you hear Savage or his partner Terry say anything about teens coming out or having sex. I think what you’ll hear them say is that all of the things that most kids, gay and straight, dream of (falling in love, starting a family, having the support of their parents, co-workers and friends) are possible for LGBT teens. I think you’ll hear them talk about how difficult their teen years were, and about the fears they had that their parents would reject them, that they’d never find success and that they’d always be alone.

Choosing to have sex is one of the most personal decision a person will ever make. For LGBT people, choosing to come out is another. I have not watched all of the thousands of videos from people who have participated in the “It Gets Better” project. It’s possible that there are a few that tell kids to come out right away, or to become sexually active, but I doubt it.

Every video in the project that I have seen has had the same simple message: that the person making it understands how tortuously awful the experience of being Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender in Junior and High School can be, but there is a wonderful world of loving, vibrant, successful, engaged LGBT adults out there and if queer teens can just hang on, just for a few years, they can join it. I doubt that any of the contributors to the project think that hanging on for a few years will be easy. I suspect that most of them remember, with excruciating clarity, contemplating ending those temporary years of terror with a permanent solution and that is why they choose to reach out.

I grew up without role models, where people like Barbara Gittings, Bayard Rustin and Harvey Milk didn’t exist . I grew up in a small town where the two men with the pink house were talked about in hushed tones that immediately fell silent when I walked into the room, because it wasn’t appropriate for children’s ears. I grew up in a world where my mother wouldn’t tell me what “gay” meant, where the evening news was turned off if it reported on the AIDS crisis, where I wasn’t given words to describe who I was, and so the only word I could find was “alone.”

I was lucky. My suicide attempt failed.

I was lucky, I survived, and went to college, and found a church that embraced and loved LGBT people. That’s where I met doctors and lawyers and business owners and teachers who were like me. That’s where I met two wonderful women who had built a life together for over 50 years. That’s where I discovered I wasn’t alone and that being gay didn’t mean that i couldn’t have all of those things I’d dreamed of.

That is what McKinley missed in her blog post. In her haste to lay blame on anything other than the overwhelming prejudice perpetuated by schools, churches and governments against LGBT people McKinley missed the fact that kids need role models. In her rush to shove queer teens back into the closet she forgot that human beings need the hope of a better world, lest they give up in despair.

McKinley got one thing right in her post. She titled it “Are Adults Also To Blame For Gay Teen Suicides? Yes.” Adults are to blame for LGBT teen suicides. When adults hide the stunning diversity of God’s creation from their children they create a vision of reality that some of those children can’t see themselves in. When adults tell LGBT teens that they should be invisible then it is all too clear who is to blame when those teens believe them, and take steps to make themselves invisible permanently.

To all the LGBT kids out there: it does get better. There are adults who care about you and want all the wonderful things you dream of to come true, but you have to hang on. If you need to keep who are secret to remain safe then do so. If you need someone to talk to please call the Trevor Project at 866-4-U-Trevor (866-488-7386).

—  admin

Mayor Rawlings proclaims ‘Stand Up Against Bullying Week’ to mark Ben Cohen’s visit

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings issued a proclamation this week declaring Sept. 12-16 “Stand Up Against Bullying Week.”

Rawlings’ proclamation (click to enlarge) notes that “nine out of 10 LGBT teens have reported being bullied at school within the past year because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Stand Up Against Bullying Week coincides with a visit from international rugby star Ben Cohen, who’ll be in town for gay Pride and whose StandUp Foundation is dedicated to raising awareness about anti-LGBT bullying.

“It is an important issue to our youth,” Rawlings’ chief of staff, Paula Blackmon, said Wednesday. “Bullying is a real thing, and it’s important to bring awareness to it and to say it won’t be tolerated, and if it is happening, then others shouldn’t tolerate it. They should do something about it.”

The Stand Up Against Bullying Week proclamation was issued in response to a request from Jeff Hickey, a local gay activist who led the campaign to bring Cohen to Dallas.

Hickey has formed a group called Dallas Stands Up to host Cohen and spread the word about his visit Sept. 15-18. In addition to being a special VIP guest at the Alan Ross Texas Freedom Parade, Cohen will headline an anti-bullying forum at SMU, speak at high schools in Dallas and Fort Worth, and attend a fundraiser for the Stand Up Foundation at the home of a GOP state lawmaker.

“It’s been a pure grassroots effort,” Hickey said. “It’s actually proving to be a much more profound experience than I expected to be.”

Below is a press release from Dallas Stands Up with more details about Cohen’s visit.

—  John Wright

Progress in the fight against bullying

Laws passed by Texas Legislature this session aren’t perfect, but they are progress in the battle

PHYLLIS GUEST | Contributing Columnist

Last month, clinical psychologist Mark Hatzenbuehler of Columbia University published a study in the journal Pediatrics entitled “The social environment and suicide attempts in lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth.” The article uses information on 32,000 high school juniors in Oregon.

Why Oregon? Because it is the only state reporting to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control the three-part data set Hatzenbuehler chose to consider: sexual orientation, self-reported suicide attempts and personal contacts by county health professionals.

Maybe the findings are predictable to mental health professionals who work with teens on a day-to-day basis. But to me and to others with whom I’ve spoken, they are startling.

Taking the proportion of voting Democrats as a proxy for a liberal county environment, Hatzenbuehler found that LGBT teens living in politically conservative locales are significantly more depressed and suicidal than teens living in politically progressive areas.

Even straight kids in conservative areas — areas in which no programs supporting gay rights exist — are more likely to report depression or to say they’ve attempted suicide.

What are the numbers? In the most conservative Oregon counties, some 25 percent of LGBT teens have attempted suicide, and 9 percent of straight teens have made similar attempts.

In the liberal counties, 20 percent of LGBT teens have tried to kill themselves, and 4 percent of straight teens have done so.

Hatzenbuehler has published a number of studies on the mental health of LGBs, and in this case he is considering how “structural forms of discrimination affect socially disadvantaged groups” — structural meaning, in this case, the ways in which conservative communities refuse to accept LGBs.

His findings coincide with those of other researchers, who have reported that — along with strong family ties — caring teachers and safe schools can sharply reduce teens’ suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts.

In a brief phone interview, Hatzenbuehler said he hopes community groups and, in particular, school districts, will use his research as a “road map for how we can reduce suicide ideation and suicide attempts by creating a safe, supportive school environment.”

Hatzenbuehler points out that last summer, the New York Senate passed the Dignity for All Students Act (only three of 61 legislators voted no).

Signed into law by then-Gov. David Patterson on Sept. 8, 2010, the act “prohibits harassment against students based on, among other attributes, “sexual orientation, gender (including gender identity and expression) and sex…and further prohibits discrimination based on these characteristics.”

The law applies to all New York State public schools.

Now back to Texas, which despite a supermajority of Republicans in the Legislature, is making progress against school bullying and for teen suicide prevention — though not specifically against the bullying or suicide attempts of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual students.

The Legislature in May passed two bills backed by Equality Texas. The first is an anti-bullying bill originally named in honor of Asher Brown, the gay 13-year-old who committed suicide after being bullied at his school. The second instructs the Department of State Health Services to “develop resources designed to prevent teen suicide, including mental health counseling, crisis prevention tools and suicide prevention education.”

So here’s the takeaway: How protective the new Texas laws will be for LGBT youth remains to be seen. For one thing, unlike in New York, schools in Texas would have “the option of implementing the programs” developed because of the new law and thus could very well opt out.

For another, on that same bill, the Senate Education committee added some provisions, including one that prohibits a student from seeking counseling without a parent’s knowledge.

So these pieces of legislation are not perfect. But they are progress.

As of June 1, Gov. Rick Perry had not signed either anti-bullying bill into law. But there is hope in Texas that we are finally doing something to keep our children safe — or at least safer — from bullying and its all-too-often deadly consequences.

Phyllis Guest is a longtime activist and member of Stonewall Democrats of Dallas. Contact her via editor@dallasvoice.com.

—  John Wright

House panel hears bills to remove ‘homosexual conduct’ law, add trans hate crimes protections

Daniel Williams

By DANIEL WILLIAMS | Legislative Queery

Four bills that would improve the lives of LGBT Texans were heard by the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee on Tuesday. The Committee is responsible for making recommendations to the state House of Representatives on bills that effect the Texas Penal Code. The first step in that process is to hold a public hearing. Any member of the public may testify for, or against, a bill during the hearing.

The first bill, House Bill 1909 by Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, amends the state’s law against “indecency with a child” to provide LGBT teens with the same protections as straight teens. Currently, the law contains a provisions that allows consensual sexual contact between a person under the age of 17 and a person who is no more than three years older. Dubbed the “Romeo and Juliet” rule, the exception recognizes that teenagers engage in sexual behavior with their boyfriends/girlfriends and that prosecuting “heavy petting” by high school sweethearts serves no purpose.

However, there’s a catch! When the Romeo and Juliet rule was created in 1973, “homosexual conduct” was still an enforceable crime in Texas. The authors of the exception were very careful that it only apply to couples “of the opposite sex.” Coleman’s bill removes the opposite sex requirement to give “Juliet & Juliet” the same protections as their straight contemporaries. Dennis Coleman, executive director of Equality Texas, testified in favor of the bill. There was no opposition.

Next, the committee heard House Bill 2227, also by Coleman. Texas law allows prosecutors to seek tougher sentences for crimes committed due to the perpetrator’s bias against people with specific attributes, including “race, color, disability, religion, national origin or ancestry, age, gender, or sexual preference.” HB 2227 would add “gender identity and expression” to that list.

—  admin

Trevor Project honors Radcliffe

Daniel Radcliffe, left, with costars Rupert Grint and Emma Watson in a scene from ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1′

I readily admit that I am a huge Harry Potter fan. I love the books. I love the movies. And I love the young actors that portray the characters in the movies — especially Daniel Radcliffe.

Radcliffe makes my list of favorites not just because he plays the heroic Harry Potter, but also because of his dedication, as a straight ally, to making life better for LGBT teens.

Obviously, I am not Radcliffe’s only fan. The Associated Press reports today that Radcliffe has been honored by The Trevor Project with the Hero Award for his work with the organization. Since first learning about the Trevor Project in 2008, he has worked to support the organization through public service announcements and other public statements. Radcliffe has also been very vocal and public in his support for LGBT equality.

Radcliffe told AP  he considers it “an honor” to have the chance to support the Trevor Project, and that he believes, “The people that are doing the heroic things are the people answering phones 24 hours a day in the Trevor call centers.” He said that supporting the Trevor Project is “absolutely one of the most important, if not the most important, thing that I’m associated with.”

Previous winners of the Trevor Project Hero Award are Nathan Lane, Dustin Lance Black and Vanessa Williams.

The final installment of the “Harry Potter” movie series — Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 — will be released in July, and Radcliffe is now starring in the Broadway revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

—  admin

Local Briefs

Razzle Dazzle Dallas announces launch of new event website

Organizers of the newly revived Razzle Dazzle Dallas have announced the launch of a new RDD website, where interested individuals can keep up with the latest news on the event, set for June 1-5, and register to become RDD volunteers or corporate sponsors.

The 2011 Razzle Dazzle Dallas will benefit eight local LGBT or HIV/AIDS organizations: Youth First Texas, Resource Center Dallas, AIDS Interfaith Network, Cedar Springs Merchants Association Beautification Fund, Legacy Counseling/Founders Cottage, Lone Star Ride and Dallas Legal Hospice.

The new website is at RazzleDazzleDallas.org. For more information, e-mail info@razzledazzledallas.org or call 214-450-8238.

Oak Cliff UU Church holding special ‘It Gets Better’ service, video filming

The Unitarian Universalist Church of Oak Cliff will present a special service Sunday, Feb. 13, at 10 a.m. in honor of the “It Gets Better” Project, started in response to the suicides of LGBT teens who had been bullied and harassed, and all those who stand against hatred and intolerance.

After the services on both Feb. 13 and Feb. 20, the church invites the community to share “It Gets Better” stories, which will be recorded, edited and posted online.

Go online to ItGetsBetter.org for information on the It Gets Better Project, and to OakCliffUU.org for information on and directions to the church. Interested individuals can also call Jan Brubaker at 214-907-9812 for information.

Bloomin’ Ball Launch Party set for Feb. 16 in private home

The 2011 Bloomin’ Ball Launch Party will be held Wednesday, Feb. 16 at a private home. The $10 suggested donation at the door includes complimentary light hors d’oeuvres, wine and valet parking.

The annual Bloomin’ Ball benefits AIDS Interfaith Network. For more information or to RSVP, contact Gretchen G. Kelly at 214-943-4444.

Researcher at UNT looking for participants for relationship study

The Center for Psychosocial Health Research from the University of North Texas is conducting a study of health and conflict within the LGBT population and is looking for LGBT individuals over 18 and fluent in English who have experienced conflict in a same-sex relationship.

Those who complete the survey will receive $20. For information on participating, email cphprojectheart@gmail.com or call 940-891-6844.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Feb. 4, 2011.

—  John Wright

Wendy Walsh: Seth’s mother says stop the bullying now

I have two sons. I like to say I inherited them when their mother and I began our relationship.

They make me crazy sometimes, like when I have to tell them 12 times to pick up their dirty socks off the floor, or not to leave their empty water bottles or candy wrappers on the couch.

They make me crazy sometimes. But I love them more than life — all the time. Even when they make me crazy.

In one week and one day, I will get to celebrate my 10th Christmas with my sons. I am willing to bet I am looking forward to Christmas morning as much as — maybe even more than — they are. The looks on their faces when they see the gifts from Santa, when they open those brightly-wrapped packages under the tree — that joy is worth all the crazy times. It’s worth the world.

In one week and one day I get to celebrate Christmas morning with my sons. Wendy Walsh will never have that chance again. Her son, Seth, was one of the several LGBT teens who committed suicide this fall after facing years of bullying. I can’t even begin to imagine what she must be feeling right now. I think I might just close myself off in my house and never want to see anyone else again.

But Wendy Walsh isn’t doing that. She is putting her grief and her pain and, yes, her anger to work, joining with the ACLU to call on all schools everywhere to protect all children from the kind of bullying and harassment that left her son feeling he had no way of escape except dying, and to call on the federal government to enact legislation to fight bullying.

And while the rest of us can never truly understand the depth of Wendy Walsh’s grief, her loss, we need to all understand that Seth Walsh was our son, too, that Wendy Walsh’s loss was our loss, and that her grief should be our grief. And we should all fight just as hard and she is to make sure that no other children, anywhere, ever feel such despair that suicide seems their only option.

If we don’t do something to save our children, who will?

—  admin

Constance McMillen in heady company as a Glamour Women of the Year honoree

Constance McMillen: Woman of the Year

A year ago, Constance McMillen was just another Mississippi teenager looking forward to her senior year in high school. Then came the spring and prom season. And officials at Itawamba Agricultural High School told Constance she couldn’t take her girlfriend as her date to the prom.

Most teens — especially those in small towns and rural areas — would have just let it go. Hell, most LGBT teens in areas like that wouldn’t have even brought up the subject in the first place. I mean, small towns and rural areas — especially in Mississippi — tend not to be thought of as bastions of tolerance and acceptance, and it takes more courage than most grown people have to be willing to take a stand like that when you know you are making yourself a target.

But obviously, Constance McMillen is not most teens. And obviously, she has courage to spare. Because she refused to just sit there and take the discrimination and bigotry. She fought back. And she ended up winning the right to take her girlfriend to the prom and she won $35,000 from the school district, to boot — not to mention that she also became a national hero of the LGBT equality movement.

Constance has gotten a lot of awards and recognition and met a lot of celebrities in the months since she first garnered national attention with her fight. But next Monday, Nov. 8, she will find herself in some truly heady company when she heads to Carnegie Hall in New York City to accept a Glamour magazine Women of the Year Award. Just look at the folks with whom Constance is being honored: Grammy Award-winning pop star Fergie, Oscar-winning actress Julia Roberts, designer Donatella Versace, singer-actress-icon-goddess Cher (who will be honored with a lifetime achievement award), Queen Rania of Jordan and sports superstars Lindsey Vonn, Mia Hamm and Lisa Leslie.

Katie Spotz, the 22-year-old who rowed solo across the Atlantic to raise awareness for the global need for clean drinking water, OB-gyn Dr. Hawa Awi and her daughters who have faced down militants and threats to their lives to provide food and care for some 90,000 displaces Somali refugees on their property near Mogadishu, and worldwide female heads of states — including President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, President Dalia Grybauskaitė of Lithuania, Prime Minister Iveta Radičovó of Slovakia, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar of Trinidad and Tobago, and Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor of Croatia — are also among the honorees.

Can you say, “Wow”?

Take a minute to think about the accomplishments of the women named in the list above. Then think about Constance McMillen and what she has accomplished. I think it is amazing — and fantastic — that Glamour magazine is putting an 18-year-old lesbian who stood up for her right to take her girlfriend to the prom in the company of these other outstanding women who have done their part to change the world and make it a better place.

—  admin

DISD tables anti-bullying policy

Trustee Lew Blackburn says he will offer a substitute with specific protections for LGBT students, but district spokesman says measure may not be necessary

John Wright  |  Online Editor wright@dallasvoice.com

BEING VIGILANT  |  Hundreds gathered for a second vigil in memory of LGBT teens lost to suicide in recent weeks Wednesday, Oct. 20, in Oak Lawn, as Fort Worth Councilman Joel Burns continued to make headlines across the country with his passionate plea to troubled youth to remember, “It gets better.” See the full story on Page 4. (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)
BEING VIGILANT | Hundreds gathered for a second vigil in memory of LGBT teens lost to suicide in recent weeks Wednesday, Oct. 20, in Oak Lawn, as Fort Worth Councilman Joel Burns continued to make headlines across the country with his passionate plea to troubled youth to remember, “It gets better.” See the full story on Page 4. (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)

Dallas Independent School District trustee Lew Blackburn said this week he plans to introduce a bullying policy that provides specific protections for LGBT students.

However, a DISD spokesman said he’s unsure whether a new policy is needed because DISD already has a policy prohibiting harassment of students based on various factors, including sexual orientation.
Bullying policies have taken on added significance after a string of widely publicized recent teen suicides across the country, including several by students who’d experienced bullying and harassment because they were gay or perceived to be gay.

DISD’s nine-member board of trustees has been considering a new anti-bullying policy that would strengthen penalties and clarify definitions. However, as currently written, the proposal doesn’t list factors based on which students would be protected.

In response to the concerns of LGBT advocates, Blackburn said he plans to introduce a substitute proposal that would enumerate those factors, including both sexual orientation and gender identity.

“The policy that the administration has recommended is the same policy that the Texas Association of School Boards has recommended,” Blackburn said Monday, Oct. 18. “What I’m doing is looking at policies across the nation, not just in Texas. I’m looking for something more wide-ranging. I’m still doing some research, and what I’m hoping to do is come back to the administration with a revision to what they have proposed with some additional language that other states are using.”

Jon Dahlander, a spokesman for the district, said Thursday, Oct. 21 that trustees have put off discussion of the new bullying policy until November at the earliest.

“We already have a policy on the books that talks about no harassment of kids for gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, all of those things, so I think they wanted to take a step back and do a little more research,” Dahlander said. “I think they felt like, you know what, while the word bullying may not necessarily be there, harassment certainly is and we probably need to go back to the drawing board and revisit whether or not we need this policy based on what we’ve already got.”

DISD’s harassment policy, passed in the mid-1990s, includes sexual orientation but not gender identity.

Meanwhile, DISD’s Student Code of Conduct prohibits “offensive language” related to “gender orientation,” a term which is not defined in the code.

Dahlander said DISD was the first in the state to include sexual orientation in its harassment policy. He also said he believes trustees are open to including sexual orientation and gender identity in the bullying policy, which is one of the reasons they put off discussion.

“They may specifically address different categories of students or different kinds of bullying, or they may not address it because of what’s already there in terms of harassment,” Dahlander said. “The ball, as always, is in their court.”

Cece Cox, executive director of Resource Center Dallas, was among several LGBT advocates who met with Blackburn this week to discuss his proposal.

Cox said RCD officials have heard from at least two other trustees who support a fully inclusive policy. However, she noted that the policy will need five votes to pass.

“My experience tells me that things are never as easy as they should be,” Cox said. “I think with the ongoing need and now the spotlight on LGBT bullying and suicide, passing a policy that doesn’t specifically include LGBT folks would not be prudent. It would essentially have no teeth in it.”

Both Blackburn and Cox encouraged people in the LGBT community to contact their trustees and urge them to support a fully inclusive policy. Contact information for trustees is listed on the DISD website at www.dallasisd.org/about/boardcontact.htm.

ADVOCATING FOR SAFE SCHOOLS | State Rep. Roberto Alonzo, a Dallas Democrat, speaks at a rally Friday, Oct. 16, in support of stronger anti-bullying laws and policies in Texas’ public Schools. Alonza has pledged to introduce asafe schools measure when the Texas Legislature convenes in January. (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)
ADVOCATING FOR SAFE SCHOOLS | State Rep. Roberto Alonzo, a Dallas Democrat, speaks at a rally Friday, Oct. 16, in support of stronger anti-bullying laws and policies in Texas’ public Schools. Alonza has pledged to introduce asafe schools measure when the Texas Legislature convenes in January. (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)

Blackburn also said he plans to ask DISD’s administration to come up with proposed guidelines related to gender identity and homecoming court eligibility.

The principal at North Dallas High School recently sparked controversy when she refused to allow transgender female student Andy Moreno to run for homecoming queen.

The district currently has no policy on the matter. In response to the controversy at NDHS, DISD officials released statements saying they supported the principal’s decision and trumpeting the district’s “aggressive” anti-harassment policy — even though it doesn’t include gender identity.

Blackburn said he’s concerned that in the absence of a DISD policy related to homecoming eligibility and gender identity, principals at different schools could reach different decisions.

“I would like for us to be consistent district-wide,” Blackburn said. “We need to start talking about it so that we have something in policy before the start of school for next year. It’s new territory for us, and I think we need to take our time and do it right.”

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

—  Kevin Thomas

National spotlight focuses on Burns

As Fort Worth councilman’s staff, volunteers continue to field e-mails, calls from bullied teens seeking help, Dallasites stage a 2nd vigil to remember teen suicide victims


DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer
taffet@dallasvoice.com

PROUD COUPLE  |  Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns, right, and his partner, J.D. Angle, march with the city’s contingent in the Tarrant County Pride Parade earlier this month. Burns has garnered national attention with the “It Gets Better” speech he delivered during the Oct. 12 Fort Worth City Council meeting. (Tammye Nash/Dallas Voice)
PROUD COUPLE | Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns, right, and his partner, J.D. Angle, march with the city’s contingent in the Tarrant County Pride Parade earlier this month. Burns has garnered national attention with the “It Gets Better” speech he delivered during the Oct. 12 Fort Worth City Council meeting. (Tammye Nash/Dallas Voice)

Joel Burns has been a familiar name and face in North Texas since 2007 when he was first elected to the Fort Worth City Council, becoming Cowtown’s first openly gay council member.

But in the last two weeks, thousands have learned Burns’ name and are hailing him as a hero of the LGBT community and the battle against bullying and teen suicide.

Fort Worth City Council’s Oct. 12 meeting started out as usual. But then Burns took his turn during that part of the meeting in which councilmembers routinely offer recognition to individuals and events in their own districts. But this time, Burns took on a national topic.

Struggling to choke back tears until finally giving up and letting the tears run down his face, Burns talked about several teenagers who were LGBT, or at least perceived to be LGBT, who had recently taken their own lives after enduring months, sometimes years, of anti-gay bullying and harassment.

And then the councilman told his own story, how he had himself been bullied as a teen and had contemplated suicide.

By the time he finished, everyone in the Council Chamber had risen to their feet to salute him with applause.

But it didn’t stop there. Burns posted the official  Fort Worth City Council video on YouTube as part of Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign to encourage and reassure LGBT teens — and suddenly, Burns was an Internet sensation.

Newspapers around the world posted the video on their websites and it went viral on YouTube. Before he knew it, Burns was being asked to be on, first local and then national and international news programs, including The Today Show with Matt Lauer. On Wednesday, Oct. 20, Burns was a guest on Ellen DeGeneres’ television talk show.

During an appearance on Ellen, Burns said that the best part of the last two weeks has been the number of teens from around the world who have e-mailed him and contacted him on Facebook.

“The countless number of kids from around the world … who said, ‘I was in a really, really bad place and I was making plans to take my own life,’” he said. “The fact that they have reconsidered — that makes it worth me crying at City Council, the heartache for my mom and dad, worth every bit of all that because they’re still alive.”

While Burns has been traveling coast-to-coast speaking out against bullying on all of the network morning shows in New York, on cable news and on Ellen in Los Angeles, a team of volunteers has been sorting through thousands of messages pouring into his e-mail inbox at Fort Worth City Hall.

By Monday, Oct. 18, more than 20,000 e-mails had arrived after the video had been streamed 1.3 million times. On Thursday, Oct. 21, the number of YouTube hits passed 2 million, and the e-mail and Facebook messages continue to pour in.

The YouTube page has logged more than 27,000 comments.

Actually reaching Burns or his office this week has been almost impossible. His office phone switches to directly to voice mail.

The Fort Worth City Hall media office said they would pass a message to his office to contact Dallas Voice. But spokesman Bill Begley said he’d walk a message down to Burns’ office himself.

Will Trevino in Councilmember Kathleen Hicks’ office said that former staff and volunteers in Burns’ office had been working overtime trying to keep up with the flood of messages.

Remembering the lost ones
Wednesday was Spirit Day, designated to remember young people who have committed suicide as a result of bullying. Many wore purple to show solidarity for efforts to stop the bullying based on actual or perceived sexual orientation.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined the call for an end to bullying by releasing an “It Gets Better” video earlier this week and wearing purple on Spirit Day.

More than 200 people gathered in the Caven parking lot off Cedar Springs Road and held a candlelight vigil marching to the Legacy of Love monument at Oak Lawn Avenue.

Marchers carried purple signs that read “Hope” and “It Gets Better.”

At the monument, organizer Ivan Watson read the names of recent suicide victims and a moment of silence was observed for each one.

Watson said he was inspired to organize the vigil after hearing about Asher Brown, the recent Houston suicide victim.

Organizer Steve Weir of DallasGay-Agenda.com billed the event as a peace march and vigil in memory of those who died and a stand against bullying D/FW area. He said that school policies must change to make schools safe for LGBT youth.

Rafael McDonnell from Resource Center Dallas said he searched bullying policies of school districts across the state and found none that specifically addresses bullying based on sexual orientation. Austin’s comes closest, he said.

McDonnell also said that Philadelphia’s school system passed a comprehensive anti-bullying policy that specifically addresses sexual orientation and sexual identity.

“It’s in Lew Blackburn’s hands,” McDonnell said.

Blackburn is the DISD trustee who has shown the most interest in crafting a policy that will protect LGBT students and those perceived to be.

The “It Gets Better” campaign continues. Randy Potts is the grandson of evangelist Oral Roberts. His uncle was gay and committed suicide. He is recording an “It Gets Better” video this weekend.

To watch video from Wednesday’s vigil, go to DallasVoice.com/videos

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

—  Kevin Thomas