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It Gets Better October 12, 2010

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Fort Worth, Texas City Councilman Joel Burns tells his personal story in response to an increase in bullying and suicides of LGBT teens across the United States. Hang on, life does get better.

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Yes, sir. Mayor, as you know, 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.

Ron, would you go ahead and run the - um, the parents of Asher Brown who you can see above, 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 councilors and principles, the harassment, intimidation and threats continued. For years, it continued. A couple of 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 years old. I’d like for you to look at his face.

Unlike Asher, Indiana teen Billy Lucas, who, never came - never self-identified as gay but was perceived to be by bullies who harassed him daily at the Greensburg Community High School. 3 weeks ago he hung himself in his grandparent's barn. He was 15 years old.

Minnesota 15 year-old Justin Aaberg, came out to friends at age 13, after which the harassment and bulling began. It grew as he moved from Middle school to High school. When he found the harassment more than he could bare, 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 quote: “Go hang himself”. On September 18th after being threatened by a group of older teens, he went home and threw a noose around a tree branch and he did just that. He hung himself in his backyard. His mother... his mother saw him, pulled him down, Seth survived on life support for 9 days before dieing a couple of weeks ago, he was 13 years old.

Teen bullying and suicide has 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 Clementi 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 Oklahomah teen Zach Harrington who killed himself after attending a city council meeting, where - in Norman, Oklahoma - 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 to grow. It is never acceptable for us to be the cause of any child to feel un-loved or worthless, and I’m committed to being a part of that conversation.

But tonight I would like to talk to the twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen and seventeen year olds at Pascal, and at Arlington Heights, and at Tremble Tech High Schools or at Daggett, Rosemont Middle Schools or at any school in Ft. Worth or anywhere across the country for that matter. I know that life can seem unbearable. I know that the people in your household or in your school may not understand you, and 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, who would stumbled 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 kid but friendly. I was a band dork. I played basketball but not very well. I was teased like all kids, but I was fairly confident and I didn’t let it bother me much.

One day, when I was in the ninth 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 was somehow beginning to show on the outside. Ashamed, humiliated and confused, I went home. There must be something very wrong with me, I thought. Something I could never let my family or anyone else know.

I think I'm going to have too hard a time with the next couple of sentences that I wrote. And also, I don’t – I don’t want my mother and father to bear the pain of having to hear me say them.

So I will just say, and I will skip ahead. 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 the gun tonight or the rope or the pill bottle. You need to know that the story doesn’t end where I didn't tell it on that unfortunate day. There’s so, so, 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 a chance to see just how much life - 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 you never have to deal with those jerks again if you don’t want to. You will find and you will make new friends who will understand you, and life will get so, 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 whose photos were shown up above earlier and those who have taken their lives. Memories that I wish I could share with the 13-year-old version of me on that very unfortunate day.

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 for a very speechless moment. My now partner, J.D. Angle and I saw each other for the first time. I would take that 13-year-old me to the first day of spring in 1999 on a West Texas ranch hill top surrounded by a dozen head of Black Angus cattle who thought we were there to feed. And as the sunset turning the sky pink, purple and orange in the way that only a West Texas sunset can, I jabbed my hands into my jeans pocket and pulled out two rings that I had literally spent my last dollar on and slipped one onto 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, and a room filled with countless family and friends, erupting in cheers when it became clear that I would win my first election, so that they could see the love and support for me that was in the room that night.

And I would take - I would take the 13-year-old me to just a few days ago at Baylor Hospital, to see our dad. Our dad who’s no longer the 40-year-old tough cowboy that he was when I was 13, who I thought would never understand me. But is now the 67-year-old dad and still pretty tough cowboy, who has grown older and the 13-year-old me, who would see me today, holding my dad’s weathered hands and see my dad as he woke up from his operation and him squeeze my hand and look up at me and say, 'Joel, I’m so glad you’re here today.' And me say back to my Dad, 'I am too, dad, 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 the attitudes of society will change. Please live long enough to be there to see it.

And to the adults, the bullying and the harassment has to stop! We cannot look aside as life after life is tragically lost. If you need resources, please check out the Trevor Project dot org online and you can call me and I will get you whatever resources you need. My number is 817-392-8809. I want to thank those in this room for allowing me this time.

And to J.D. and the rest of my family, I’m sorry for you learning of this painful personal story in this public way for the first time, but know that I am able to tell it because of your love for me. And mom and dad, I’m alive today because you love me. Again, attitudes will change. Life will get better and you will have a lifetime of happy memories if you just allow yourself and give yourself the time to make them. Thank you.

Courtesy of Joel Burns

Bill Clinton: Press Conference on 'Gays in the Military'

January 29, 1993 (about 27 years ago)

In the contentious debate about letting homosexuals serve in the military, President Bill Clinton states his position that anyone should be allowed to serve the country unless their behavior, and not sexual orientation, disqualifies them.

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It Gets Better- October 12, 2010

- Joel Burns
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