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Davis, California

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Don’t forget LGBTQ individuals in conservative areas


headshot_tdJai Bornstein’s suicide reminds us that trans youth still face severe prejudice in red regions of the nation

This past December, 19-year-old transgender woman and activist Jai Bornstein took her own life. Bornstein, who was from the conservative town of Bakersfield, dedicated her time in both her hometown and British Columbia, where she attended school, to soothing the pain of her community and empowering the vulnerable and downtrodden — even when surrounding social structures seemed uncompromisingly intolerant.

Growing up was very challenging because Bakersfield is very conservative when it comes to gender roles and what people’s places are in society,” said Em Opperman, a transgender man and marriage and family therapist intern at the Gay and Lesbian Center of Bakersfield, via email. “I remember driving to community college during [the] Prop 8 [campaign], and I was brought to tears by the large numbers of ‘Yes on Prop 8’ sign-holders,” he said, referring to the 2008 proposition that made gay marriage illegal in California.

The blatant and subtle acts of discrimination that trans individuals encounter in conservative towns like Bakersfield are easily forgotten in light of LGBTQ successes blossoming in progressive cities like the San Francisco Bay Area — which many UC Davis students call home — and small towns like Davis.

“In Berkeley, I found a community of diverse LGBTQ people who thought and felt like I did,” recalled Opperman, a UC Berkeley alumnus. “I felt powerful for the first time in my life, like I mattered and could be anyone I wanted to be.”

But the attitudes toward trans people can differ greatly between red and blue counties, leading students in more progressive regions to underestimate the level of persecution that trans and gender non-conforming youths must brave.

In conservative environments, transgender individuals face greater rates of discrimination because we are seen as ‘other’ or ‘weirdos,’ whereas in more progressive environments, being different and diverse is perceived as a strength,” Opperman said.

Yet even a community as conservative as Bakersfield holds glimmers of hope for transformation. Dozens of residents from churches, schools and the LGBTQ community quickly mobilized to find Bornstein in the pouring rain when she was missing, while over a hundred attended her memorial service.

“Because Jai decided to take her life in a public place, a place where many people go to escape and be around trees and streams, the trauma of the situation became collective, shared by the Bakersfield community,” Opperman said. “Jai’s suicide has increased awareness in our community as to what it means to be transgender and the additional struggles we face due to society not being accepting.”

Bornstein’s GoFundMe page offers evidence of this growing movement toward acceptance. Originally created by the Bornstein family to fund searching costs, the campaign garnered over $10,000 in just two weeks. After covering funeral fees, Bornstein’s family donated the remaining money to three of her favorite charities — Club GEN at the California State University of Bakersfield, CampOUT! at the University of British Columbia and Bakersfield’s AIDS Project & Ricky’s Retreat — to support trans youth in Bakersfield and beyond.

But progress shouldn’t hinge on the loss of a community member; it requires allies in progressive cities to take more active approaches to support LGBTQ individuals in conservative areas as well as ostensibly liberal or progressive ones. For some, that entails protesting, writing to elected officials or voting against the recent influx of ‘bathroom bills.’ For others, that means contributing time or money to an organization, supporting trans artists or simply listening openly and lovingly to gender non-conforming friends.

Change will undoubtedly be uncomfortable because it demands levelheaded confrontation with people of opposing opinions. But running from the problem only leaves behind millions of persecuted individuals who don’t have the resources to escape.

I would encourage college students who go away to school yet grew up in conservative places to go back to their hometown and educate others,” Opperman advised. “Additionally, people all over California need to be more mindful of the people they’re electing to positions of power, because this will shape what services and rights are protected, especially in conservative communities.”

We need to emphasize that LGBTQ rights aren’t mere political rhetoric, but substantial policies that radically influence the lives and well-being of those around us. When trans individuals are humanized, entire ideological landscapes can be transformed.

Most importantly, we must work to honor Bornstein’s mother’s concluding words at her daughter’s memorial service: “Let love and kindness, compassion and inclusivity be my child’s legacy.”


Written by: Taryn DeOilers — tldeoilers@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.


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