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 | firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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.
“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.