It gets better: How Joel Burns' speech electrified America

A US campaign to support bullied gay teenagers is endorsed by many VIPs. But nothing has had the resonance of this heartbreaking speech from Texan councillor Joel Burns, introduced by David Usborne
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The Independent US

Lots of good things were happening around the It Gets Better project that was launched a month ago by the sex advice columnist Dan Savage in response to a disturbing run of teenage gay suicides in America. Well-known names uploading videos to the website ran from Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton and Ellen Degeneres.

Other things have bubbled through that aim to send the same supportive message to teenagers feeling life is not worth living because they are being bullied for being gay (or perceived as gay). Hundred of thousands of Americans marked Spirit Day last week by wearing purple in support of young gay people in trouble.

It has been an upsurge of positive energy triggered by things horribly negative. In September alone, five teenagers in the US, aged from 13 to 18, took their own lives. One was Tyler Clementi, a student who jumped off a bridge after roommates recorded him with another man and broadcast it on the internet.

Then something – or someone – entirely unexpected happened, which eclipsed but also boosted what everyone else was doing. A member of the Fort Worth City Council in Texas, whom no one had ever heard of unless they lived in Fort Worth, took the microphone in the chamber and told a story. His 12-minute soliloquy was recorded by Council cameras and when he was done it was put up on YouTube.

Joel Burns spoke of his torture as a young gay teen, and of how classmates "said that I was a faggot and that I should die". He tried to give details of one especially searing experience, but in the end simply could not, and had to skip that part of his life story, which he had never even told his family. To those still considering suicide, he said, tears freely flowing, "Life will get so, so, so much better. You will have a lifetime of happy memories if you just allow yourself, and give yourself, the time to make them." Mr Burns, as he points out, found happiness, marrying his partner for life, JD Angle.

Mr Burns, 40, thus had done something exceedingly rare for a US politician in these days of Tea Party rage. With his honesty and his manifest desire not to advance himself but to help others, he drew something close to universal applause.

The video had more than 2 million hits within days and made the top 10 of internet news clips in countries around the globe from Britain, India, South Africa and Ireland.

Mr Burns is swamped with messages coming in from "the countless number of kids from around the world ... who said, 'I was in a really, really bad place and I was making plans to take my own life,'" he told Ms Degeneres on her show.

"The fact that they have reconsidered, that makes it worth me crying at City Council, the heartache for my mom and dad – worth every bit of all that because they're still alive."

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, who you can see above [indicates photo of the child displayed on screen in council chamber], complained to school officials in the Cypress-Fairbanks independent school district, outside of Houston, that their son was being bully 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 counsellors and principals, 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 [photo displayed] never self-identified as gay, but was perceived to be by bullies who harassed him daily at the Greenberg Community High School. Three weeks ago, he hung himself in his grandparents' barn. He was 15 years old.

Minnesota 15-year-old Justin Aaberg [photo displayed] came out to friends at age 13, after which the harassment and the 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 [photo displayed] 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 18 September, 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. Seth survived on life support for nine days before dying, 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 Oklahoma teen Zach Harrington, who killed himself after attending a city council meeting in Norman, Oklahoma, where speakers made disparaging anti-gay remarks.

There is a conversation for the adults watching in this room and those watching to have, and we will have it. But this bullying and harassment in our schools must stop. And 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 unloved or worthless. And I am committed to being a part of that conversation.

But tonight I would like to talk to the 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 and 17-year-olds at Paschal and at Arlington Heights, and at Trimble Tech High Schools, or at Daggett and Rosemont Middle Schools, or any school in Fort 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 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 whoI thought I was supposed to be. And as I entered adolescence, I started having feelings that I didn't understand, I 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 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 very wrong with me, I thought. Something I could never let my family, or anyone else, know.

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.

You need to know that the story doesn't end where I didn't tell it, on that unfortunate day. There is 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.

To those who are feeling very alone tonight, please know that I understand how you feel, that 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 online, and you can call me and I will get you whatever resources you need.

This is my phone number.

I want to thank those in this room for allowing me this time.

And to J.D. and the rest of my family, I am sorry for you learning of this painful personal story in this public way for this 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 loved me.

Again, attitudes will change. Life will get better. You will have a lifetime of happy memories if you just allow yourself, and give yourself, the time to make them.

Thank you.