LGBT teen suicides continue — and so does harassment of Asher Brown’s parents

The It Gets Better Project project has helped a number of teens who are bullied in schools and churches. Legislation to stop bullying has passed in a number of states including Texas.

Amy and David Truong at Texas Capitol

But the bullying continues and so does teen suicide. Here are four gay teens who took their own lives in January. Others may have gone unreported as LGBT-related.

• Jan. 1 — Jeffrey Fehr, 18, hanged himself at his family’s home in Granite Bay, Calif.

• Jan. 11 — Eric James Borges, 19, an intern at The Trevor Project, committed suicide after being bullied, tormented and terrorized for most of his life. His religious-extremist parents did not to attend his memorial.

• Jan. 20 — Phillip Parker, 14, of Gorndonsville, Tenn. committed suicide. His parents said he was constantly bullied because he was gay.

• Jan. 29 — Rafael Morelos, 14, of Wenatchee, Wash., who was openly gay, hanged himself after constant bullying.

But the bullying doesn’t stop there. Dallas Voice reported in March 2011 that Asher Brown’s parents, Amy and David Truong, were being harassed for speaking out against the Cy-Fair Independent School District and pushing for anti-bullying legislation.

Asher was one of the teen’s whose suicide brought national attention to the issue. His parents lobbied Texas legislators and testified before the Senate Education Committee about the bullying Asher endured.

Fox News in Houston reports that the Truongs continue to be the victims of bullying and vandalism at their house. Watch the Fox video here.

—  David Taffet

Are LGBT students safer this year?

ANTI-BULLYING CONFERENCE | President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama sit with Brandon Greene of Burrilville, R.I., right, and Jacqui Knight of Moore, Okla., as they meet with students and parents from the Conference on Bullying Prevention in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington last March. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

A year after a rash of teen suicides focused attention on the problem of anti-LGBT bullying, some experts say it’s true things have improved, but not nearly enough

DANA RUDOLPH | Keen News Service
lisakeen@mac.com

Anti-LGBT bullying took the national stage last fall after the highly publicized suicides of several teens bullied for being or being perceived to be LGBT.

The relentless bullying, many believe, may have been one of the contributing factors in many of those youths’ decisions to attempt suicide, and their deaths led to a surge of anti-bullying awareness campaigns and media coverage.

But will LGBT students entering school this fall be any safer after a year of heightened awareness about the issue? Two LGBT leaders are doubtful, although they acknowledge some positive changes.

Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, said, “Last fall, the nation as a whole woke up to the potential consequences of this problem.”

And this year, “more schools are aware of what they need to do, and there are more resources out there,” she said.

But while “we’ve made progress” in people’s understanding of anti-LGBT bullying and “ideas and policies are getting traction,” Byard said, there is still “a lot of work to be done.”

David McFarland, interim executive director/CEO of The Trevor Project, the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBT and questioning youth, said he too believes there is a long way yet to go.

“We’re not there yet because we’re continuing to see anti-LGBT rhetoric and movement across this country that has a negative effect on young people,” McFarland said. “There is greater awareness around this issue, but LGBT students still experience bullying and harassment at an alarming rate.”

Research has shown the negative effects of bullying. GLSEN’s 2009 National School Climate Survey found that nearly 9 out of 10 LGBT students experienced verbal or physical harassment at school in the previous year, which was related to increased depression and anxiety and decreased self-esteem.

And a study in the May 2011 Journal of School Health found that anti-LGBT bullying at school “is strongly linked” to negative mental health for its victims, including an increased frequency of suicide attempts and increased risk for engaging in behaviors that can lead to infection with STDs and HIV.

The increased risks exist not only while the victim is in adolescence, but also in young adulthood.

At the federal level

Federal actions taken over the last year to address anti-LGBT bullying include, most prominently, an anti-bullying conference hosted by the While House in March 2011, at which President Obama told attendees that bullying is “more likely to affect kids that are seen as different,” including those who are different because of sexual orientation.

The U.S. Department of Education has also issued a number of letters to educators, reminding them:

• that federal laws require schools to take action against bullying, including gender-based and sexual harassment of LGBT students.

• that schools receiving federal funds must provide equal access to school resources for all student groups, including gay-straight alliances, and that GSAs “can help make schools safe and affirming environments for everyone.”

• that effective state anti-bullying laws include ones that specify “actual or perceived characteristics of students who have historically been targets of bullying,” such as sexual orientation and gender identity.

In the states

On the state level, since last fall, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut and Rhode Island enacted anti-bullying legislation that explicitly prohibits bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity, as recommended by the Department of Education, making a total of 14 states that do so.

The others include California, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.

An additional two, Massachusetts and Wisconsin, specify sexual orientation, but not gender identity.

North Dakota and Texas enacted anti-bullying laws in the last year, but those laws do not enumerate sexual orientation and gender identity.

And Byard said there has been “tremendous activity at district and local levels” across the country to address bullying.

McFarland, too, stressed the importance of local action.

“Schools and communities need to take concrete steps, creating safe spaces where youth can receive support from caring adults,” he said.

Both the Trevor Project and GLSEN are among the organizations that provide training to help them do so.

Byard said, however, that, “The biggest problem we have right now is that schools are in crisis because of the economy. We’ve got to make sure schools that want to do the right thing are not prevented because of a lack of resources.”

It may be tough going. The federal Fiscal Year 2011 budget drained more than $100 million from the two primary federal grant programs that address bullying. And state education budgets continue to face cuts.

McFarland noted that, in some districts, the problem may be attitudinal as well as budgetary, especially in states and school districts with “no promo homo” laws or policies preventing school-based instruction that could be interpreted to be positive about homosexuality.

Eight states — Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and Utah — have such laws statewide, according to GLSEN.

But individual school districts in other states may have similar policies, as does the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota, part of which is in the congressional district of presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn.

The National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Southern Poverty Law Center recently filed a lawsuit against the district, claiming the policies “exacerbated” anti-gay harassment. This caused some students “serious emotional harm, including anxiety, anger, and depression, which led some of them to consider or attempt suicide.”

In the nine months between November 2009 and July 2010, at least four LGBT students within the district died by suicide.

Federal anti-bullying legislation “would make an enormous difference,” said Byard.

Three pairs of bills in the U.S. House and Senate would address anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in schools and universities. But the bills seem unlikely to pass the current Republican-controlled House, despite having a handful of Republican co-sponsors.

Still, Byard and McFarland feel the efforts over the past year have had some positive effect.

“After last year, more doors are open,” Byard said. “People know this needs to be done.”

McFarland added, “For the first time, the challenges of LGBT youth are no longer invisible on a local, state, or national level.”

© 2011 by Keen News Service. All rights reserved.

—  John Wright

Joel Burns, gay suicide victim Zack Harrington’s family plant tree in his memory in Norman, Okla.

Friends and family gathered in Norman, Okla., last Friday to plant a tree for Zack Harrington, the gay teenager who committed suicide last fall. The family has ordered a bench to be placed in the park with the tree.

“Zack’s tree planting went well,” writes Van Harrington, Zack’s father. “About a dozen family and friends attended. Joel Burns was able to visit with us prior and come to tree planting.”

Burns, the openly gay Fort Worth city council member, traveled to Norman to attend the tree planting. Of all of the gay teen suicides of late, Zack’s affected Burns the most, he said, because it took place after the teen attended a City Council meeting and heard an outpouring of hatred against the LGBT community.

Zack’s death inspired Burns to make his “It Gets Better” speech that went viral on YouTube. Burns can be seen in the above photo in the back row.

—  David Taffet

Memorial tree for gay suicide victim Zack Harrington to be planted in Norman, Okla. park

Zack Harrington

The father of Zack Harrington, the gay teen who took his own life after listening to homophobic comments at a Norman, Okla. city council meeting last year, says his family plans to plan a tree in his memory at a city park.

Zack Harrington’s death served as the inspiration for gay Fort Worth Councilman Joel Burns’ “It Gets Better” speech.

Zack’s father, Van Harrington, said the family plans to plant the Oklahoma White Bud on April 29, which would have been Zack’s 20th birthday.

“We now have site approval and digging permit for planting of Zack’s tree,” Van Harrington said in an email this morning.

They’ve also ordered a memorial bench from the Norman Park Service that will be placed there at a later date.

Van Harrington said a documentary film is being produced about Zack’s life by Still Point Pictures, a New York company. They’ll be back in July for more filming, he said.

Also, Lecia Brooks from the Southern Poverty Law Center recently brought the film Bullied to Norman for two separate showings in Zack’s name.

“Hopefully these interests in Zack’s life will make a difference for others,” he said. “I know it helps me.”

—  David Taffet

Point Foundation honors Tyler Clementi with scholarship named after him

The Point Foundation, an organization that provides scholarships for LGBT students, this week announced the creation of a new scholarship named after Tyler Clementi, the 18-year-old gay Rutgers University student who committed suicide last fall after his roommate and another student secretly videotaped him having sex with another man and posted the video online.

Tyler Clementi

Clementi’s death, on Sept. 22, was one of a string of gay teen suicides that sparked a national conversation over anti-LGBT bullying and prompted a number of highly-visible campaigns against bullying.

According to a press release from The Point Foundation, the foundation created the scholarship “with the cooperation of Clementi’s parents, Joe and Jane, to honor his memory and to further the efforts to end the bullying that many LGBT youth face within education environments.” A statement attributed to Joe and Jane Clementi said: “Our son Tyler was a kind and gentle young man who enjoyed helping people. This scholarship will help college students and it will raise awareness of young people who are subject to abuse through malicious bullying — and so it will help people in Tyler’s memory.”

The Point Foundation has already set aside funds for the Tyler Clementi Scholarship, and will accept donations in his name from the public and current Point Foundation supporters. Donations can be made online at PointFoundation.org or by phone at 866-33-POINT.

—  admin

‘Born this Way’ photo essay blog is charming as hell — and has nothing to do with Lady Gaga

Thanks to Brad over at Gilley’s for tipping me off to this (albeit inadvertently through Facebook). He linked to this new photo essay/blog titled Born This Way. In it are images submitted by people who, in hindsight, can see the gay coming in their childhood photos. By the looks of it, the first post was published on Sunday, and already there’s a pretty impressive collection.

Born This Way is Paul V.’s project (and yes, Gaga’s next album title). Paul V. is a DJ based in Los Angeles, but I’m really hoping he sticks to this project. There’s such a heart to the pictures that makes it so super charming and even funny — but in a good way because you’ll likely relate to it.

Paul V. was inspired, if you will, by the recent teen suicides as well as the political movement and rhetoric around Prop 8 and DADT. Initially he thought his idea would be great as a book, but after sitting on it for a while, he told me he just wanted to get it out there. And it’s caught on — like wildfire. “I’m a little inundated but it’s great,” he said. “The first photo (above) was from a MySpace friend. I just thought if any pic ever proved that we feel what we feel and it comes through, this was it. I was heartbroken by the suicides and if  young people find this blog and realize there have been gay kids forever, they see they aren’t alone.”

—  Rich Lopez

Navigating our Top 10 News Stories of 2010

In this week’s Dallas Voice, which will be available on newsstands by Friday, we take a look at our Top 10 LGBT News Stories of 2010. Because the list was designed for the print edition, it may seem a little difficult to navigate here, so we thought we’d go ahead and provide this quick reference. As always, you can also download the print edition as a PDF by clicking here.

1. Teen suicides put spotlight on bullying

2. DADT repeal capped 17-year fight

3. Dallas Dems narrowly survived GOP tidal wave

4. As Prop 8, DOMA cases proceeded, Texas made its own marriage news

5. Bus driver’s plight led to trans protections at DART

6. Controversy brewed success for ‘TOTWK’

7. Perry, Dewhurst were tied to cancellation of gay-themed play at Tarleton

8. FW changes continued in wake of Rainbow Lounge

9. Dallasites helped fuel GetEQUAL

10. Rare bathhouse raid sparked controversy

—  John Wright

Top 10: Teen suicides put spotlight on bullying

Flash1
NOT FORGOTTEN | Suicide victims, back from left, Seth Walsh and Billy Lucas, and front from left, Raymond Chase, Zach Harrington, Asher Brown and Tyler Clementi. (Kevin Thomas/Dallas Voice)

No. 1:

View all of the Top 10

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” We’ve heard the adage practically all our lives, but 2010 proved beyond any doubt that words can, indeed, be lethal, as a wave of teen suicides grabbed headlines and focused attention on an epidemic of anti-gay bullying in schools.

And for the first time, it seemed, mainstream America came to terms with the reality of statistics showing that LGBT youth are three to four times more likely to take their own lives than their straight peers.

On Sept. 28, media across the country picked up the story of Asher Brown, a gay 13-year-old from Houston who days before shot himself to death with his stepfather’s gun. That same day came word that Seth Walsh, a gay 13-year-old from Tehachapi, Calif., had died after spending nine days on life support after he hung himself in his own backyard. Both boys endured months of anti-gay bullying at school, and both families said officials had ignored their repeated pleas for action. But by the time candlelight vigils took place around the country in memory of the victims, two more names had been added to the list: 15-year-old Billy Lucas of Greensburg, Ind., committed suicide after months of being bullied at school; and 18-year-old Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge after his roommate and another student secretly videotaped him having sex with another man and broadcast it on the Internet. On Sept. 29, 19-year-old Raymond Chase hung himself in his dorm room at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island. Then there was Cody J. Barker, 17, of Wisconsin, who died Sept. 13; Harrison Chase Brown, 15, of Colorado, who died Sept. 25; Felix Sacco, 17, of Massachusetts who died Sept. 29, and Caleb Nolt, 14, of Indiana, who died Sept. 30.

Finally, there was Zach Harrington, 19, of Norman, Okla. Harrington’s family said the young man had attended a Sept. 28 City Council meeting that included a public hearing on a resolution to recognize October as LGBT history month. A number of residents attended to speak out against the ordinance — which was eventually passed by the council — and Harrington’s parents said their son was so hurt by the hateful rhetoric that seven days later he took his own life.

Gay journalist and blogger Dan Savage had already started an online video project called the “It Gets Better Campaign,” in which people of all ages, from rock stars and actors to government officials to other gay teens sitting in front of their computers in their bedrooms, told their own stories of overcoming struggles and surviving to see their lives get better. They urged young people considering suicide to hang on and not give up hope.

Then on Oct. 12, one week after Harrington’s death, gay Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns took time during a meeting to address the issue. His voice choked and strained with emotion, tears running down his face, Burns read a speech he had scribbled down hastily during his lunch hour that day. He told of growing up gay in Crowley, Texas, and the bullying he endured, and how he, too, had come close to taking his own life.

But, Burns said, “It gets better,” and he continued by talking about how he had survived and thrived, about his loving family, his husband and how wonderful his life has become.

By the next morning, video of Burns’ speech had been posted to YouTube and was collecting thousands of hits. And Burns was invited to appear on The Today Show, Ellen and more. He had become the face of efforts to end the bullying and save young lives.

Around the same time, the Dallas school board began discussing how to improve its own anti-bullying policy. Activists noted that while most of the suicides making headlines involved LGBT youth, the district’s proposed new policy didn’t specifically protect those young gays, lesbians and transgenders.

Meanwhile, Andy Moreno, a female transgender student at North Dallas High School, was fighting to run for homecoming queen.

Moreno had been nominated by classmates, but school administrators said she couldn’t run because she was officially enrolled as a boy.

Although Moreno herself said she hadn’t experienced bullying by her classmates, LGBT advocates pointed out that she was being bullied by administrators because of her gender identity, and that school district policies did not specifically protect her.

On Nov. 18 the DISD board approved a fully inclusive new anti-bullying policy. Officials with the Fort Worth Independent School District announced that they, too, would be revising their policies to specifically protect LGBT teens.

As December began, State Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth announced she had prefiled legislation to address bullying in the state’s public schools, and that unlike a similar bill prefiled in the house by Rep. Mark Strama, her bill was fully inclusive of LGBT teens.

On Dec. 16, Equality Texas held a press conference in Austin, releasing results of a poll on LGBT rights that showed nearly 80 percent of Texans support inclusive anti-bullying legislation.

Chuck Smith, Equality Texas’ deputy director, said that anti-bullying bills had been introduced in the Legislature each session since 1997 but none of the measures had ever passed. But this time, as the death toll has continued to rise and the country has been forced to acknowledge the ongoing damage, Smith said he believes inclusive anti-bullying legislation has its best chance ever of passing in Texas.

— Tammye Nash

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 31, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas

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

Equality Texas pushes for anti-bullying legislation

Group also releases poll results showing support for LGBT rights

Tammye Nash  |  nash@dallasvoice.com

Joel-and-Dennis
CITING THE NUMBERS | Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns, left, listens as Equality Texas Executive Director Dennis Coleman outlines the findings of a poll showing that nearly 80 percent of Texans favor inclusive anti-bullying legislation. Equality Texas kicked off an intensive effort to get such a measure passed during the upcoming session of the Texas Legislature at a press conference in Austin on Monday, Dec. 13. (Tammye Nash/Dallas Voice)

AUSTIN — Equality Texas started ramping up efforts to get a comprehensive anti-bullying law passed in the upcoming session of the Texas Legislature with a press conference Monday, Dec. 13, highlighting results from a recently completed poll on LGBT issues.

In the poll — commissioned by Equality Texas and conducted by the national polling firm Glangariff Group Inc. —  79.2 percent of all respondents said they favored legislation that would “provide direction to Texas teachers on how to protect all children from bullying, harassment and
discrimination in school, including the children of gay and lesbian parents or teenagers who are gay,” according to Equality Texas press materials.

Dennis Coleman, Equality Texas’ executive director, said at Monday’s press conference that while bullying in schools is not new, the recent spate of gay teen suicides stemming from such bullying has “moved this issue up the ranks of issues that need to be addressed as soon as possible.

“The Dallas school district recently approved new policies to address bullying. Now it is time for the state as a whole to do the same,” Coleman said.

Coleman said that some seven bills addressing bullying have already been pre-filed for their 2011 legislative session. But, he added, Equality Texas “will not support legislation that does not include all children.”

Chuck Smith, the lobbying organization’s deputy executive director, said that Equality Texas prefers the language in legislation prefiled by Sen. Wendy Davis, which updates the definition of bullying and includes cyber-bullying, and which specifically includes LGBT students.

The bill also calls for data to be collected on bullying and provides guidelines for teachers and administrators on how to respond.

Rep. Mark Strama of Austin has prefiled a similar bill in the House of Representatives. However, Smith said, Strama’s bill does not specifically include the requirement of collecting data on bullying targeting a student’s gender identity or expression.

“That phrase is very important,” Smith said. “Strama’s bill includes gender identity and expression in the definition of bullying, but not in the section requiring collection of data on bullying.”

“These bills provide a present-day definition of what bullying is, and that is so important because too many lawmakers conjure up an image of a skirmish on the playground. That is not bullying,” Smith said. “Bullying is a repetitive pattern based on an imbalance of power and intimidation.”
Smith also said the data collection requirements are an essential piece of the anti-bullying effort.

“In most districts, if you were to ask them they would say they don’t have a problem with bullying. But if you ask them specifically how many incidents they had last year, they can’t answer because they are not currently required to collect that data,” Smith said.

Collecting such statistics, he added, will allow districts to inform their teachers and administrators, at the campus level on whether their anti-bullying training programs are effective.

“There are a lot of common sense things you would assume are already in the Texas Education Code, but they aren’t,” Smith said. “We want to see legislation passed that fills those gaps.”
Gay Fort City Councilman Joel Burns — who became the face of anti-bullying efforts when video of his Oct. 12 speech on his own experience of being bullied as a gay teen went viral — spoke at the press conference, agreeing with Coleman that bullying “is a problem we cannot afford to ignore another day.

Burns said, “As I stand here, there are Texas children who believe their only escape from the bullying and harassment is to put a gun to their heads and pull the trigger, empty the pill bottle into their mouths and swallow, or tighten the noose around their necks and step off the chair.

“Today and every day, those children, without hope, live in our Texas cities and towns, in our neighborhoods, go to school with our children, and unfortunately, might even be children in your own family,” Burns said.

Anne Wynne, new co-chair of the Equality Texas board, participated in the Monday press conference, reading a statement from former Texas first lady and U.S. first lady Laura Bush in support of anti-bullying legislation.

“Bullying of any kind is terrible, and we as adults have to be the ones to do something about it,” Bush’s statement said.
She also described how proud she was of Burns for having the courage to make such a public statement about his own experiences.

Vicki Baldwin, a retired educator with 42 years in the field, said passage of anti-bullying legislation is “a moral issue. You do not treat people — anybody — badly. You do not pick on people because they are different. This is a moral issue, and Texas needs to take the lead” in addressing it.

“In general, I don’t like policies, and I don’t like legislation” Baldwin said. “But I also know everybody isn’t like me. I try to do the right thing, and I always assumed that other people try to do the right thing, too, just instinctively. But that’s not the way it happens. We have reached the point that people’s lives, their actual lives, are involved here, and it is critical that we do something to address it.”

Burns agreed. “Any one life lost is worthy of us taking action,” he said. “And it is past time to take action now.”

Other issues in the poll

Although Monday’s press conference focused on the need for anti-bullying legislation, Equality Texas also released responses from the poll indicating that support for LGBT equality is higher in Texas than most people would assume.

According to the poll, 88 percent of the respondents support a guaranteed right for lesbians and gays to visit their partners in the hospital, and 75.4 percent support prohibiting employment and housing discrimination based on sexual orientation, while 69.7 support prohibiting employment and housing discrimination against transgenders.

Surprisingly, the poll found that 63.1 percent of those responded support allowing gays and lesbians to get a civil union.
In other findings:
• 75.1 percent support a guaranteed right for lesbians and gays to make end-of-life decisions for their partners.
• 68.8 percent support giving gays and lesbians the same legal rights as heterosexual parents regarding their children.
• 67.3 percent support hate crime legislation protecting transgenders.
• 65.4 percent support legal rights of gays and lesbians to inherit their partners’ possessions when no will is in place.

Poll results were also examined based on the political party affiliation of respondents:
• Democratic voters support all 12 LGBT rights listed in the poll by a majority above 65 percent.
• 77.8 percent of Democrats support civil unions for gays and lesbians.
• Independent voters give majority support to 11 of the 12 rights, supporting six of the 12 by more than 65 percent.
• The only right independent voters do not support is the right of same-sex couples to marry. However, 59.4 percent of independent voters do support civil unions.
• A majority of Republican voters support nine of 12 of the LGBT rights covered by the poll, including supporting five of the 12 at levels higher than 65 percent.
• Republican voters do not support the right to same-sex marriage, but 57.6 percent do support civil unions for gays and lesbians.
In looking at responses broken down by religiosity, the poll found:
• A majority of respondents who attend weekly religious services support nine of the 12 rights covered in the poll.
• 51.1 percent of those who attend religious services weekly support civil unions for gays and lesbians.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 17, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas