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

Starvoice • 06.17.11

By Jack Fertig

CELEBRITY BIRTHDAY

Meredith Baxter turns 64 on Tuesday. For most of the ’80s, Baxter played Elyse Keaton on Family Ties. She’s mostly been seen in TV films and guest-starring roles. In an interview with Matt Lauer on Today back in 2009, she came out of the closet as lesbian. Her memoir Untied was released this past March.

THIS WEEK

For the next few months we get a taste of the Uranus-Pluto square that will dominate the next five years. Recent political turmoil has just been the set-up for major crises and changes ahead. Astrologically it looks a lot like 1848, 1939 and the ‘60s. Buckle your seatbelts; it’s gonna get bumpy.

………………….

GEMINI  May 21-Jun 20
As dystopian as the future looks, you’ll find a way to thrive. Trust your instincts and reconsider the most important lessons you learned from your mother. Talking with siblings can clarify that.

CANCER  Jun 21-Jul 22
Frustrations in love and career are too big to solve by yourself. Fortunately you have some very wise and resourceful friends. As odd as their ideas may seem, they will likely help.

LEO  Jul 23-Aug 22
It’s easy to worry yourself sick. Arguments make it worse. Focus on your career. Working through sexual issues is healing. Quiet time alone gives you space to think about what you need to do.

VIRGO  Aug 23-Sep 22
Sharing your innermost thoughts will open up ideas for creative fun. On the way, you open up some difficult childhood memories. Resolving an ugly past can clear the way for a better future.

LIBRA  Sep 23-Oct 22
Your home and partnership are heading for big changes. Be generous and comforting in bed. Family commitments need to change. Be clear on what those are. Be adaptive at work.

SCORPIO  Oct 23-Nov 21
Obsessing on details leads to accidents and misunderstandings. Don’t neglect the important details; just keep it all in perspective. Your partner’s advice and practical support will prove helpful.

SAGITTARIUS  Nov 22-Dec 20
Now’s the time to find a job you enjoy. Channeling your sexual charisma into the job search is helpful, but if you already like your work that charisma can go back to what it does best.

CAPRICORN  Dec 21-Jan 19
Trying to manage your family or community will backfire. Focus on having fun. If you’re looking for love, play at being moody, broody and intense; but remember, you’re playing.

AQUARIUS  Jan 20-Feb 18
Conversations open up deep psychological insights. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of your family, no matter how odd. Releasing old tensions could have surprising health benefits.

PISCES  Feb 19-Mar 19
Reality is challenging your values and your plans, but that’s life. Adaptability and a sense of humor will help you stay true to your core while everything else goes crazy.

ARIES  Mar 20-Apr 19
Be very sure that your career is in line with your ambitions. Being unhappy on your job track will get you derailed. Contempt for authority is well-deserved but pick your battles strategically.

TAURUS  Apr 20-May 20
“Bad religion” is a subjective experience. Focus on your own personal beliefs; know where you find clarity, support and reassurance. Respect others’ paths while finding your own.

Jack Fertig can be reached at 415-864-8302 or Starjack.com

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 17, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

George W. Bush is so stupid he thinks Dick Cheney was gauging his ‘tolerance’ for gays

In his new memoir Decision Points, President George W. Bush says that when he approached Dick Cheney about being his running mate in 2000, Cheney reminded him that he had a gay daughter, Mary. Here’s the passage from the book:

By the time Dick came to the ranch to deliver his final report, I had decided to make another run at him. As he finished his briefing, I said, “Dick, you are the perfect running mate.”

While I had dropped hints before, he could tell I was serious this time. Finally, he said, “I need to talk to Lynne.” I took that as a promising sign. He told me that he had had three heart attacks and that he and Lynne were happy with their life in Dallas. Then he said, “Mary is gay.” I could tell what he meant by the way he said it. Dick clearly loved his daughter. I felt he was gauging my tolerance. “If you have a problem with this, I’m not your man,” he was essentially saying.

I smiled at him and said, “Dick, take your time. Please talk to Lynne. And I could not care less about Mary’s orientation.”

If Cheney really said this, clearly it was because he was worried how the Republican Party’s right-wing base would react to having a vice presidential candidate with a gay daughter. But this obvious fact seems completely lost on Bush. When Matt Lauer asked Bush about the passage last night (video above), he insisted that Cheney was testing his own personal tolerance for gay people. WTF? Here’s the exchange:

LAUER: Wasn’t he gauging the tolerance of the base of the Republican party?

BUSH: No.

LAUER: Wasn’t he saying, “Isn’t this– will this be an issue?”

BUSH: No.  He was gauging my tolerance.

As Salon.com notes, after selecting Cheney as his running mate Bush proceeded to repeatedly use his opposition to gay rights to galvanize the Republican base. But we suppose this was nothing more than a sign of Bush’s own personal intolerance, as opposed to some carefully orchestrated political strategy. Whatever.

—  John Wright

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