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Joel Burns, Who's Resigning From Fort Worth Council, Reflects On His Tearful Viral Anti-Bully Speech

Bill Zeeble
Joel Burns, Fort Worth City Council, District 9, less than a day after announcing his resignation. He's off to Harvard for a prestigious, 11-month Masters program, but says he's coming back.

Fort Worth City Council member Joel Burns is resigning the seat that State Sen. Wendy Davis once held. Burns, who is openly gay, has been in office since 2008. Burns talked to KERA about his time on the council, plans to attend Harvard this fall, and that tearful, unexpected council speech four years ago that went viral online.

When Burns ran in 2007, he campaigned for safer neighborhoods, economic development, and better public transportation. He’s pleased with his accomplishments, and disappointed a streetcar plan was voted down.

Then, in 2010, bullied teens committing suicide prompted a speech during a City Council meeting. The video spread online and brought Burns international attention.

Here's part of what he said: “I’ve never told this story to anyone before tonight but the numerous suicides have upset me so much and just torn my heart. The story is for the young people who might be holding that gun tonight, or the rope. 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 - give yourself a chance to see how much better life will get.”

This week, Burns said that speech unexpectedly changed his life.

“It’s vitally important we give kids who’ve contacted me a ray of hope,” Burns said. “And many of them have lost that hope. In terms of creating safe places for youth to learn and grow and develop into adults, I’m committed to continue to work towards that end no matter where I am.”

Is Burns convinced there are other voices on the council to carry on his work?

"All the members on our council are passionate about a wide variety of things," Burns said. "Whether it's transportation or economic development efforts. I don’t know that teen bullying is something that is at the forefront for the other eight members of the council, but it doesn’t mean things important to them are any less important."

Burns didn't speculate about what political office he might be interested in when he returns from Harvard.

"I don’t have anything in particular," he said. I’m looking to have an amazing experience and learn what I can.  I’ll figure out a way to be involved in my community, give back, grow, who knows, I might even make some money after serving all these years on City Council."

What is Burns proudest of?

"We have a more open and connected government than when I arrived," he said. "We’ve found new tools to connect in this modern day of technology to our constituents. We’ve really made customer service a more important thing in our government."

Burns added: "I’m also proud of the fact I think I brought a diverse voice. I didn’t run to be the gay city council man. But there are 15,000 mayors and city council members in the state of Texas according the Texas Municipal League. And there are seven of us in the entire state. I will tell you, in terms of some of the findings of our diversity task force, extending non-discrimination protection to transgender individuals, having same-sex partner benefits for city employees, not to be self–aggrandizing, but I honestly don’t know those things would have passed had I not been sitting at the table."

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.