10.17.10

Gay Teens' New Champion Opens Up

As his message of hope to gay teens goes viral, Texas councilman Joel Burns tells Claire Howorth about his own brush with suicide, his city's homophobia—and what he left out of his speech.

Last Tuesday, Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns turned what would have been an ordinary local community board meeting into 13 minutes of unflinching advocacy. Burns, motivated by the recent spate of gay teen suicides, used his allotted council time to give a speech with the “It Gets Better” theme that has become the key message of the anti-bullying/anti-homophobia movement since author Dan Savage started it weeks ago. Burns spoke of his own struggles as a gay teen and pleaded for compassion among parents and children. In doing so, he became an instant YouTube sensation and vaulted himself into the national spotlight.

By Sunday morning, the video had 1.4 million hits, and Burns, 41, was in New York for television appearances; his wave of notoriety seems yet to crest. He sat down with The Daily Beast to discuss his somewhat accidental fame, his family life, and that tender segment of the speech that left him, and many who watched it, in tears.

“An hour before the meeting, I showed my husband what I was going to read, and he said, ‘The details you’re going to talk about are very graphic, and hard to hear, and I want you to think about what your mom and dad are going to feel like.’ And I’m glad I didn’t say it because I don’t want the focus of my story to be on that one bleak, dark day,” said Burns of the omitted part of his speech.

The inference of “it” is that Burns himself wandered a painful distance down a suicidal path after being bullied in school. Until Tuesday night’s disclosure, however, that torment was something Burns never broached with his family or friends.

According to Burns, with the exception of “a few crazies,” the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Even his most antipodal fellow councilman cried and embraced him afterward.

And he almost didn’t go through with the speech. “I was thinking, Maybe I should; maybe I shouldn’t. There was the city budget to discuss, and about a million other things. But on Monday I read about Zach Harrington, who killed himself after a City Council meeting [in Norman, Oklahoma] that contained anti-gay rhetoric. I left City Hall, went home for lunch, hammered it out, and cried the whole way through.”

Burns is sandy-haired and blue-eyed, instantly likable, with a down-home charisma that no doubt helped him win a special election in 2007 and a regular election in 2009. If his current popularity holds, he will handily take Fort Worth’s 9th District again in May 2011.

As he says in the video, he comes from Crowley, Texas, the adopted son of Jeanette, a church piano teacher, and Butch, a rancher and electrician. His sister, a schoolteacher, is also adopted; his parents had a biological son 15 years after they adopted Joel. The Burnses seem as loving as a family can be, despite a brief period of adjustment when Joel came out at age 20.

Watch Joel Burns Address the Fort Worth City Council

Video screenshot

Watch: Stars Reach Out to Gay TeensIn 1989, after his freshman year at Texas Tech, Burns got a job at a private foundation’s camp for impoverished city kids, just south of Poughkeepsie, New York. There, Burns discovered that other people understood him; to his shock, some of them simply knew he was gay, and that was that. Though he’d had a boyfriend, the young men were out exclusively to each other. But upon his return to Texas, Jeanette found a book in Joel’s laundry about societal attitudes toward homosexuality, and his secret was revealed.

“I wasn’t fortified with any understanding of what it meant, and I’m sure they weren’t either,” said Burns of his parents, noting that he came out at the height of the AIDS crisis. The next couple of years were difficult, he said, but “we rebuilt the relationship, and for decades now they have expressed regret for just not understanding. And after I got married, that all changed for the better.”

The family did not let their religious roots interfere with their love and understanding of each other; to the contrary, Burns credits the church with much of his personal growth.

“My Methodist upbringing was very formative in my politics. I was born in 1969, and there was all this ecumenical ‘we’re in this together’ sensitivity that was part of the United Methodist Church in the 1970s. People say, ‘Oh, how’d you get to be a Democrat in the South? Must be because you’re gay.’ But no, it’s more because I was part of the United Methodist Church back then.”

Like any other small-town, traditional Southerner, Burns got married. J.D. Angle, his husband of 17 years—they married in 1993, though Burns says 1999 in the video—is a political adviser and grassroots organizer. The two wanted children, and pursued private adoption and surrogacy for several years, before they had to abandon those plans and use their baby fund—which was straight out of pocket, as there is no insurance plan for such a quest—to care for two ill family members.

Burns said he never would have run for office if the couple had children. The bittersweet irony, of course, is that his public office has enabled the advocacy that may help many other kids.

Although Burns is out, his platform has never been LGBT-centric. “One of the reasons I won is because my opponents wanted to talk about me being gay, and I wanted to talk about bringing a streetcar system to Fort Worth, having safe neighborhoods, and economic development,” said Burns, who got his political start on historic preservation boards and zoning committees.

No political life is peachy. His opponents have resorted to gay-baiting and anti-gay rhetoric, said Burns. One candidate even distributed a flier touting the mere fact that he had a wife as evidence of his political ability. And there was the door-to-door campaign moment that left his mother in tears.

“My parents are apolitical—no bumper stickers, no yard signs,” he said. “They don’t talk about politics. But my mom decided she was going to block-walk for me, and my dad was her driver. One day, she walks up to a house in a fairly affluent neighborhood, and the guy said, ‘Oh, you’re Jeanette Burns! You’re my wife’s Bible study leader.’ They had a conversation, all chummy, and at the end, he said, ‘I feel so sorry for you that you’re compelled to go out and do this for someone you know is going to hell.’ And it just sucker-punched her. She just broke down in tears, went back to the truck and said, ‘I’m never doing this again.’

Gallery: Stars Reach Out to Gay Teens

“At the headquarters, there was a gaggle of mothers, about my mother’s age, who would come help in whatever way. My mother comes in crying, and they ask what happened. And the other two women start crying. One of them says, ‘The reason I [help your son] is because I have a gay son who has never come out to me,’ and the other woman had a lesbian daughter out of state. They were doing mom stuff for me because they couldn’t do it for their own kids.”

Two weeks later, his mother came back to block-walk again, and continued to for the rest of the campaign.

The funny thing about all the post-“It Gets Better” speech attention, mused Burns, is that he thought he already had his 15 minutes of advocate-fame. Last summer, on the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission and the Fort Worth police raided the Rainbow Lounge, a new gay bar. Burns woke up that Sunday morning to an overflowing voicemail box. He leaned even harder on city anti-discrimination ordinances he’d been trying to push through, and succeeded.

“We train city employees [for sensitivity], and we have created domestic-partner benefits. We had an existing one for gays and lesbians, but I wanted to add transgender protections to our discrimination rights,” he said. After the Rainbow Lounge incident, “the response from the city was, ‘OK, maybe you’re right.’”

Monday is the beginning of Ally Week, during which straight people advocate and raise awareness for the LGBT community. Burns filmed a public-service announcement for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network on Sunday, and he plans to continue to raise awareness when and however he can.

“My heart was truly heavy all through September,” said Burns of the six suicides that dominated headlines. “I don’t want to simply use the catchphrase—not only does ‘it get better,’ but you’re going to have a lifetime of happy memories.”

Claire Howorth is the Arts editor at the Daily Beast.