The question “why” seemed to hang over a group of more than 100 mourners Wednesday night as they gathered at Bakersfield’s downtown Liberty Bell to remember a local teen lost last week to suicide.
But as the candlelight vigil continued, the unanswerable question — why 19-year-old Jai Bornstein took her own life — gave way to a determination, a promise, by those present to create safe, welcoming spaces for vulnerable youth in the community.
“I heard the word ‘why’ a little earlier in someone’s speech,” William Van Landingham, of the Trevor Project, told the gathering. “And the problem is suicide is so complicated that we will never know the why, because the person with that answer is gone.”
So instead of asking why, Van Landingham said, let’s ask how can we prevent this tragedy from happening to someone else.
Bornstein was transgender, and therefore far more vulnerable to suicide than other teens. Indeed, lesbian, gay and bisexual youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers, according to the CDC.
It’s a statistic that had many at the vigil calling upon the larger community, including members of the clergy, local bureaucrats and politicians to soften their stances and accept LGBTQ youth for who they are, not who others think they should be.
“The Bornsteins have asked us to help create a softer and safer world. Let me give you some suggestions,” said Whitney Weddell, founding president of Bakersfield LGBTQ.
“First, whenever you see or hear anyone refer to a trans person by the wrong pronoun, correct them. You can do this politely and assertively — or not. But do not let one moment go by where someone gets to refer to a trans woman as ‘he.’ Ever. No trans man is ‘she.’ Ever.”
Weddell, her voice rising into a staccato-like intensity, called out those “who think they get to define who other people are.
“Because of the obsolete definitions they have of things like gender and sex,” Weddell said, “they use words like weapons to shame people who don’t fit into those old rules.”
As scores held up lighted candles to fight the darkness, Weddell had them repeat a refrain she views as fundamental:
“Only I get to say who I am.”
Others spoke at the event, including Audrey Chavez, of the Bakersfield AIDS Project. But earlier in the evening, Chavez reminded a reporter of the story of Seth Walsh, a young gay Tehachapi teen who in 2010 took his own life after enduring a daily gauntlet of bullying.
“It’s important that we protect the children who are entrusted to us,” Chavez said.
And that theme of protection and acceptance echoed on throughout the night.
Never again, someone said of the teenager’s tragic death.
If only that were true.