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Councilman spoke out for gay teens 'who might be holding gun tonight'

By Mallory Simon, CNN
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Gay councilman: We're not doing our job
  • Fort Worth Councilman Joel Burns made emotional 13-minute plea during meeting
  • Burns shared his story of being bullied and called names for being gay
  • His message was for teens "holding the gun tonight, or the rope or the pill bottle"
  • Burns hopes teachers, parents and country can take steps to stop an upsetting trend

(CNN) -- It started with an emotional 13-minute-long plea at a local council meeting in Fort Worth, Texas.

Councilman Joel Burns struggled to maintain his composure Tuesday as he shared his story about being gay and bullied as a child and how the recent rash of child suicides because of bullying has torn him apart.

Burns told CNN in his first national interview Friday that he felt he had to say something because it was clear that not enough was being done to stem the crisis.

And as someone who dealt with the same issues, he wanted to share the advice he wished someone had told him as a child.

"The reality of it is, it gets better in ways you can never fathom as a 13- or 14-year-old. Times are dark, and you're either being harassed or bullied inside the school or outside the school. You have a household that may not accept you; there may be any kind of abuse around it," Burns told CNN.

"There's just no hope that there's life after your adolescence and after your teenaged years. I have often thought, wouldn't it be wonderful if I could go back to the me that existed as a teenager that really didn't think that the future was all that bright at times, and show him just the amazing, wonderful things that have happened in the course of my adult life?"

So Burns took it upon himself to tell his story in the hopes it might make a difference for someone else.

Video: Bullying victim's plea goes viral

In his plea during the meeting, he didn't only talk about bullying or how kids should be nice to each other. He shared his personal story: a story of being bullied as a child for being gay, to the point where his thoughts turned dark, too.

That 13-minute plea caught national attention in part because of his brutal honesty. The video, which has gone viral on YouTube, has amassed more than 540,000 page views and is being regarded by many as one of the most emotional pleas about bullying children who are gay. (Watch the full 13-minute plea here.)

"I was cornered after school by some older kids who roughed me up," Burns said during the council meeting. "They said that I was a f** and that I should die and go to hell, where I belonged."

Burns struggled to maintain his composure during that plea -- his voice was quivering, and at times, he cried -- but he continued on in a personal and blunt way.

"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 want my mother and father to bear the pain of having to hear me say them," he said. "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."

Telling his story was not for attention or about him, Burns said.

"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," Burns said during his plea. "There is so, so much more."

Those words, he said, might give teens what he needed as a child: hope.

The numerous suicides in recent days have upset me so much and have just torn at my heart.
--Fort Worth Councilman Joel Burns
  • Bullying
  • Fort Worth
  • Suicide

"Life got so much better for me," he said. "Give yourself a chance to see how much better life will get. And it will get better."

On Friday, he cited being interviewed on CNN as an example.

"I mean, I wish I could show the 13-year-old not only all the things that I said in that video, he said. "But the fact that I'm on CNN today is something I never would have guessed as a 13-year-old or any other age, for that matter."

He's gone from an unknown local councilman to an impromptu spokesman, telling his story to a national audience because he can't stand to see children suffer like he did.

"The recent rash of suicides is indicative of the fact that we're not doing our jobs in that regard," he told CNN, referring to adults, officials and school workers.

Burns said it is adults who must step up and offer their hand.

"The very first thing, I think, for the parents, the teachers and the school administrators is to tell those kids it's OK, to know that you have power," he said. "Let that kid know that it's OK that there's someone who might stand up for them, there's someone they can lean on, someone who will have their backs. It's important to give their kids that permission and say, hey, I know times are hard for you. If you ever need a friend, let me know, and I'll be there for you."

But he said it's also about society changing and realizing the impact the comments people make, sometimes unknowingly, will have on someone else.

For example, a few of the suicides Burns referred to in his plea: Asher Brown, 13, who shot himself; Justin Aaberg, 15, who hanged himself; and Seth Walsh, whose mother found the 13-year-old hanging by a rope from a tree at their home in California.

Burns told CNN that those kids were just a sampling of the impact of bullying across the country.

In fact, the mother of 11-year-old Jaheem Herrera, who hanged himself after allegedly being bullied at a Georgia school, asked the White House on Friday for help in a campaign to end school bullying.

It is for those kids and others struggling who he was speaking to and for -- in hopes that the country can reverse an increasingly upsetting trend.

"It's about creating a safe place for our kids to go to school. And even when they're out of school and they're at a local convenience store or at the shopping mall or wherever they are, that they're not subjected to the kind of really just over-the-top harassment and bullying that we have seen," Burns said.

"Some of the guys that I referenced at the beginning of my comments, they had survived literally years of harassment and bullying that has largely, according to their parents, gone unanswered from the administrators and the principals and teachers," he said. "And that's something that has to stop."