Texas Official Speaks Publicly About Growing Up Gay

In the wake of recent teen suicides, many people are posting video testimonials telling young gays that, later in life, "It Gets Better." Joel Burns is an openly gay city councilman in Fort Worth, Texas. At a council meeting on Tuesday, he spoke about his painful experience as a gay teen. Host Melissa Block talks with Burns about that and his decision to speak out.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

On Tuesday night, a routine city council meeting in Fort Worth, Texas, took a dramatic turn, when Councilman Joel Burns started talking about a raft of suicides among gay teens. Photos of smiling young boys were projected in the council chamber: Asher Brown, Seth Walsh, Billy Lucas and Justin Auberg, all killed themselves in recent months after being bullied at school.

Then Councilman Burns, who is openly gay, said this.

Mr. JOEL BURNS (City Councilman, Fort Worth, Texas): I have never told this story to anyone before tonight - not my family, not my husband, not anyone. But the numerous suicides in recent days have upset me so much and have just torn at my heart. And even though there may be some political repercussions for telling my story, this story is not just for the adults who might choose or not choose to support me. This story is for the young people who might be holding that gun tonight, or the rope, or the pill bottle.

BLOCK: Councilman Joel Burns joins us to talk about his message, which has since gone viral.

Councilman Burns, thanks for being with us.

Mr. BURNS: Im happy to be here.

BLOCK: That story that you said youve never told before, you actually couldnt bring yourself to tell before the chamber on Tuesday. Can you share any of what that experience was with us now?

Mr. BURNS: It was just really a very dark place, a very difficult place where I considered taking my own life. And I had actually written out four or five sentences, and just the very - A, The very graphic nature of them was just too hard for me to go through. And then, I had a realization while actually reading it of my parents hearing that and how if it was hard for me, it would be really hard for them.

I also realized, I guess in retrospect, that that really - the specifics of where I was that one afternoon, which happened to be, you know, locked in my parents' bathroom actually, really is not so much the story as that for adults, we have to take on this issue of bullying and suicide. And then to the teenagers, and that it does get easier if they just let themselves live long enough to get to that point.

BLOCK: Hmm. Well, Councilman Burns, the video of your speech is part of the It Gets Better Campaign. And a couple of days ago on the program, I interviewed Dan Savage who started that campaign.

We heard from some listeners afterward, one in particular who wrote that he finds the campaign to be, as he put it, patronizing and a denial of reality. He wrote this: Energy would better be spent in anti-bullying efforts and education, instead of telling gay kids to suffer along with it.

Do you think there needs to be a stronger message to schools, to administrators, to principals, that the bullying needs to stop, that they need to do something about it?

Mr. BURNS: Absolutely. And there's actually, you know, some legislative opportunities that are coming about in many states, as they consider anti-bullying legislation. In Texas, we'll take up our next legislative session in January.

But outside the statehouses, there's roles that people can play in terms of going to their local school boards and to their school administrators and having the conversation. And it is happening. It's happening in the Fort Worth Independent School District. I talked to the superintendent about it, actually a couple of weeks ago. But we have to keep doing that and keep doing more.

BLOCK: Well, after your address on Tuesday night, you got a standing ovation from your fellow city council members. Whats happened since then? Have you heard from gay teens, from schools?

Mr. BURNS: I have received about 12,000 emails. And in fact, our city's IT department had to go in and adjust some resources just so that I can keep them coming.

BLOCK: Oh, wow.

Mr. BURNS: Im getting more than a hundred an hour. I've also had to expand my voicemail box, too. Unfortunately, I can't listen to all of them. And what I've done is had a group of friends and family members that help me monitor my email and monitor my voicemail. But it's tough. It wasnt something I was prepared for.

I will tell you that I recall from today that I've had three different messages from teenagers who said either they were a teen or they have a friend who saw the video at a place where they were considering taking their own lives and that it impacted them in some way.

And, you know, if there's only one of those kids, then I was successful on Tuesday night. It was worth every tear shed. It was worth every bit of upset. It was worth, you know, even my mom and dad being upset if just one of those kids decided not to. And I've had a number tell me that is indeed the case.

BLOCK: Well, Councilman Burns, we appreciate you're talking with us. Thanks very much.

Mr. BURNS: I greatly enjoyed it. Thank you very much.

BLOCK: Joel Burns is a member of the Fort Worth City Council. The video of him telling his story at a council meeting this week has now been viewed by hundreds of thousands of people online. You can watch it at our website, npr.org.

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