Fort Worth Councilmember Burns Headlines Freedom Awards
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger's Newsmagazine * All rights reserved
PHOTO: San Diego County Democratic Party chair Jess Durfee and Fort Worth City Councilmember Joel Burns
“It Gets Better (for Democrats),” read the headline for the program of the 35th annual San Diego Democratic Club Freedom Awards, held Saturday, November 13 at the San Diego Art Institute in Balboa Park. The slogan was a reflection of how traumatic the results of the 2010 midterm elections have been for Democrats, but also an ironic allusion to the chief claim to fame of the keynote speaker, openly Gay Fort Worth, Texas City Councilmember Joel Burns, who on October 12 made a speech from the Fort Worth City Council chambers detailing his own history of growing up and enduring anti-Gay bullying as a child – and the friend from Oklahoma who committed suicide rather than face any more harassment.
Burns began his speech with a few jokes about his husband, who after his City Council speech told him, “I love you, but I don't want to be known as the husband of the guy who cries at City Council meetings.” Promising not to cry during his Freedom Awards speech – though later on he briefly came close to tearing up – Burns talked grimly about suicides among Queer teenagers and the need to find innovative ways to prevent both the suicides themselves and the years of harassment and bullying that usually precedes and causes them.
“Today in the U.S. 19 people will put a gun to their mouths, or put a rope around their necks and step off a chair, or put a pill bottle to their mouths, and kill themselves,” Burns said. “And 19 more people will kill themselves the day after, and 19 more the day after that. Of those 19, 11 will be youth and four or five will be LGBT [Queer] youth. One-fourth of all Americans who kill themselves are Gay youth: the 13-,. 14- and 15-year old versions of you and me. Many of them do so after months, or even years, of bullying and harassment.”
When the recent spate of Queer teen suicides was reported in the media, Burns said even he – with a history of living through bullying himself – took too long to speak out. “When I read about the first suicide, I thought, 'This is awful. I should do something about it.' But I didn't,” Burns admitted. “It wasn't until Zeke Harrington killed himself that I delivered the story I wrote about my truth. I had no idea what an amazing gift I gave myself, my family and others by speaking out.”
Indeed, among the people Councilmember Burns was able to help by speaking out was Dan Harrington, Zeke's father. “I talked to him a few days ago, and you can imagine how that felt,” he said. “He told me Zeke's mom, a teacher, is having problems trying to go back to work.” Burns mentioned a member of his own family who's also a teacher, “who sees bullying going on everywhere” and feels largely powerless to stop it.. “No one deserves to be told they have no worth,” Burns said.
“People aren't used to seeing politicians talk about it,” Burns acknowledged. He said he hadn't expected the video of his speech at the Fort Worth City Council to “go viral” on the Internet, but he's been gratified and supported by the response. He said he received 29,000 e-mails, including a few requests for dates – which amused him since he'd said in the speech that he's in a deeply committed relationship. “The response isn't because of me,” Burns said. “I do think it's indicative of a few things going on in America. People see bullying every day.”
Ironically, Burns said that he expected his 15 minutes of nationwide fame to happen over a year ago, shortly after he won his City Council seat, when agents from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Control department raided the Rainbow Lounge in Fort Worth. Whether by accident or design, they picked the 40th anniversary of the riot at the Stonewall Inn in New York City, commonly thought of as the beginning of the Queer rights movement in the U.S., to stage the raid – and they severely injured a young customer by throwing him down stairs.
Burns recalled that he was in Houston at the time of the raid but immediately returned home once he heard of it “because I didn't want people to think Fort Worth was a city full of idiots. I was in a place of despair, but we had a rally on the steps of the county courthouse and ultimately we expanded our nondiscrimination ordinance to include Transgender individuals. We created a diversity task force and changed the way we train police officers and firefighters. And this past Tuesday the city of Fort Worth adopted benefits for the domestic partners of city employees.”
That attitude of converting danger into opportunity also shaped Burns' discussion of the 2010 midterm elections. California Democrats, who came through the election relatively unscathed – their party took the governorship from the Republicans and had an almost clean sweep of the statewide offices – tend not to realize just what a disaster it was in most of the rest of the country. According to Burns, in the 2008 election Texas Democrats came within two votes of a majority in the state's House of Representatives; after 2010, they'll be outnumbered two to one.
“But the election results don't reflect a political change in the people,” Burns said. “People are in a place of despair. They are gasping for hope, just as they were in 2008, but it manifested very differently. It creates an opportunity for all of us in this room to talk to neighbors, parents, kids and co-workers and tell them the difference between the truth and the untruths. … You've got to keep electing LGBT officials and straight allies, giving money and working in campaigns. .. Please don't forget those of us who found bullying too hard to take, and who took our own lives in despair.”
“So this is how it ends: garland him with laurels and shove him out the door,” said veteran club activist Mel Merrill when president Larry Baza and former president Jeri Dilno called him up to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award. Merrill, who had previously done a satirical stand-up comedy routine as part of the program – a tradition Baza decided to revive this year – Merrill turned serious as he recalled why he got involved in politics and joined the club in the first place.
“For a Gay man of my generation, it was self-preservation,” Merrill said. “For most of my adult life, my sexual expression has been illegal. This year, it was a pleasure to vote – again – for the governor, Jerry Brown, who signed Willie Brown's Consenting Adults Act that made us legal.” After briefly discussing why Merrill and the other activists in the club's early years felt that “forming an LGBT club within the Democratic Party” was the best way to achieve political influence and affect policy, Merrill said, “It can get better as long as we keep on working.” He also noted that all the other awardees that night were “considerably younger” than him, “so the work will go on,” and he expressed his pride at having worked with the late Dr. A. Brad Truax, Doug Scott, R. Steven Pope and Herb King, all of whom have club awards named after them. (King's was the one Merrill won.)
One of the club's traditions is for the president to give out a special award whose recipient is unknown to anyone else until the night of the event. Baza gave this award to Bob Leyh, the club's vice-president for development (fundraising), who jokingly accepted it “on behalf of the conservative Blue Dog anti-spending pro-business wing” of the club. Baza also gave two Board Member of the Year awards, one to special events chair Cindy Green – who, despite the competition for volunteers from candidates' campaigns, managed to staff a club booth and do voter registration at every local street fair this year – and one to Vanessa Cosio, who stepped in as information technology chair and dramatically revamped and improved the club's Web site.
Veteran club activist and former president Gloria Johnson introduced outgoing San Diego City Councilmember Donna Frye for a special recognition award. “I'm not going to make a speech,” said Frye – and she didn't. Jennifer Campbell, M.D. – almost universally known as “Dr. Jen” – received the J. Douglas Scott political action award and thanked her partner Suzanne, “who helps me knock on those doors” while walking precincts.
Cindy Green, who when she received her own award later in the evening said, “I don't do it for the recognition; I do it because I love it,” gave the R. Steven Pope Award for Volunteerism to Lyn Gwizdak and his service dog, Landon – probably the first time in the club's history it's given a shared award to a non-human recipient. Gwizdak, a blind female-to-male Transgender person, won the award largely for her volunteer work at the club's street fair booths. Green said she included the unusually affectionate Landon in the citation because “he was the biggest draw in the booth” -- people came by to pet Landon and then Lyn would register them to vote and/or sign them up to work on campaigns.
The A. Brad Truax Human Rights award went to retiring Assemblymember Mary Salas, who barely lost a bruising primary battle for a State Senate seat in June. “I'm really honored and happy to be in the presence of so many people,” Salas said. “I'm a lifelong San Diegan and I've seen people's attitudes shift from being hostile and anti-Gay to becoming a welcoming community. I have Gay, Lesbian and Transgender members of my own family, and back then it was 'don't ask, don't tell.'” Salas said she was especially proud of her 12-year-old daughter for befriending, and bringing to their home, a schoolmate who was harassed by his own parents for wearing blue eye shadow and mascara.
Other club awards went to Diversionary Theatre, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary next year; and Jennifer LeSar, wife of Assemblymember-elect and former San Diego City Councilmember Toni Atkins. LeSar's award – accepted for her by Atkins' Assembly campaign manager, Tim Orozco, because she and Atkins are on vacation – was given by Atkins' successor on the Council, Todd Gloria. Calling LeSar “one of the most amazing women, period,” Gloria praised her for her work bringing affordable housing to San Diego, developing the Tenth and B project downtown and helping the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center secure the Sunburst building on 20th and C in Golden Hill as a home for young Queer people. “Thanks to her, 24 LGBT youth aren't sleeping on the streets,” Gloria said.