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It Gets Better by Councilman Joel Burns

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The following is a transcript of the speech that Councilman Joel Burns delivered to the Ft. Worth, Tex. city council on Tues., October 12, 2010.

Mayor, we are gathered here today in our pink shirts to bring awareness to the fight against breast cancer here in Fort Worth and across the globe. But tonight I ask my colleagues' indulgence in allowing me to use my announcement time to talk briefly about another issue that pulls at my heart.

The parents of Asher Brown complained to school officials in the Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, outside of Houston, that their son was being bullied and harassed in school. The bullies called him "faggot" and "queer." They shoved him, they punched him. And in spite of his parents' calls to counselors and principals, the harassment, intimidation and threats continued. For years it continued. A couple weeks ago, after being bullied at school, Asher went home, found his father's gun, and shot himself in the head. His father found Asher dead when he came home from work. Asher was 13. I would like for you to look at Asher's face.

Unlike Asher, Indiana teen Billy Lucas never self-identified as gay, but was perceived to be by the bullies who harassed him daily at Greenburg Community High School. Three weeks ago he hung himself in his grandparent's barn. He was 15.

Minnesota 15-year-old Justin Aaberg came out to friends at age 13 after which the harassment and bullying began. It grew as he moved from middle school to high school. When he found the harassment more than he could bear, he hung himself in his room and was found by his mother.

Classmates started teasing and name-calling Seth Walsh in the fourth grade. It continued through his middle school years where other students told him the world didn't need another "queer" and that he should "go hang himself." On Sept 18, after being threatened by a group of older teens, he went home, threw a noose around a tree branch, and he did just that — he hung himself in his back yard. His mother saw him, pulled him down and Seth survived on life support for nine days before dying a couple weeks ago.

Teen bullying and suicide have reached an epidemic in our country, especially among gay and lesbian youth, those perceived to be gay, or kids who are just different. In recent weeks, New Jersey teen Tyler Cleminti jumped off a bridge to his death after his roommate outed him on the Internet. Rhode Island teen Raymond Chase hung himself in his dorm room. And we learned just yesterday of Oklahoma teen Zach Harrington who killed himself after attending a City Council meeting in Norman, Okla. where speakers made disparaging anti-gay remarks.

There is a conversation for the adults in this room and those watching to have—and we will have it: that this bullying and harassment in our schools must stop and that our schools must be a safe place to learn and grow. And I am committed to being part of that conversation.

But tonight I would like to talk to the 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 and 17-year-olds at Paschal, Arlington Heights, or Trimble high schools, at Daggett or Rosemont middle school, or any school in Fort Worth, or for that matter, across the country. I know that life can seem unbearable. I know that the people in your household or in your school may not understand you or that they may even physically harm you.

But I want you to know that it gets better.

When I was 13, I was a skinny, lanky, awkward teen who had grown too tall too fast and would stumble over my own feet. I was the son of a Methodist Church pianist named Jeanette, and a cowboy named—fittingly—Butch, in Crowley, Texas. As their son and as a kid in a small town, there was a certain image of who I thought I was supposed to be. But as I entered adolescence, I started having feelings that I didn't understand and couldn't explain, but I knew they didn't mesh with the image of what I thought I was supposed to be.

I was a sensitive but friendly kid. I was a band dork. I played basketball, but not very well. I was teased like all kids, but I was fairly confident and didn't let it bother me much.

But one day when I was in the 9th grade, just starting Crowley High School, I was cornered after school by some older kids who roughed me up. They said that I was a faggot and that I should die and go to hell where I belonged.

That erupted the fear that I had kept pushed down: that what I was beginning to feel on the inside must somehow be showing on the outside. Ashamed, humiliated, and confused, I went home. There must be something so very wrong with me, I thought. Something I could never let my family or anyone else know.

I have never told anyone this story before tonight—not my family, not my husband, no one.

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 political repercussions of my telling this story, this story is not 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 in their parents' bathroom tonight. Or the rope. Or the pill bottle.

You need to know the story doesn't end with me putting the gun back on that shelf. There is so much more.

Yes, high school was difficult. Coming out was painful. But life got SO much better for me. And I want to tell any teen who might see this: Give yourself the chance to see just how much better life WILL get. And it will get better. You will get out of the household that doesn't accept you. You will get out of that high school and never have to deal with those jerks again if you want. You will find and make new friends who will understand you. And life will get so,so much better.

I look back, and my life is full of so many happy memories that I wish I could share with those who photos were shown earlier and others who have taken their lives, memories that I wish I could share with the 13-year-old version of me.

If I could, I would take the 13-year-old me by the hand, and take him to the campaign office in 1992 of then-Governor Clinton, where, for a speechless moment, J.D. Angle and saw each other for the first time.

I would take the 13-year-old me to the first day of spring 1993 on a West Texas ranch hilltop, surrounded by a dozen head of black angus cattle who thought we were there to feed, and as the sun set—turning the sky pink and purple and orange in a way that only a West Texas sunset can—I jabbed my hand into my jeans pocket and pulled out the two rings I'd spent literally my last dollar on, and slipped one on J.D.'s hand and asked him to spend the rest of his life with me.

I would take the 13-year-old Joel to election night in 2007 as the early vote numbers were announced and a room filled with countless family and friends erupted in cheers as it was clear I would win my first election, so that he could see the love and support for me that was in that room.

And I would take the 13-year-old me to just a few days ago, at Baylor Hospital, to see our dad, no longer the 40-year-old tough cowboy that I thought would never understand me, but now the 67-year-old, still-pretty-tough cowboy who has grown older. And the 13-year-old me would see me holding my dad's weathered hand and see, as my dad woke up from his operation, him squeeze my hand, and look up at me, and say, "Joel, I sure am glad you're here." And me say, "I am too, Daddy, I am too."

To those who are feeling very alone tonight, please know that I understand how you feel. But things will get easier. Please stick around to make those happy memories for yourself. It may not seem like it tonight, but they will. And attitudes will change. Please live long enough to be there to see it.

And to the adults, the bullying and harassment have to stop. Society cannot look aside as life after life is tragically lost.

If you need resources, please check out online. You can call me and I will get you whatever resources you need.

Thank you to those in this room for allowing me this time. And to J.D. and the rest of my family, I am sorry for you to learn of this painful personal story in this public way, but know that I am able to tell it because of your love for me.

Again, attitudes will change; life will get better, and you will have a lifetime of happy memories—if you just allow yourself to make them.

Windy City Times will be taking submissions of essays to run on our Web site,, and in future issues. Please send your submission to

Also please see Gay Texas councilman reflects on speech, bullying, by Ross Forman

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