The other day, Tiffany Diba’s 5-month-old dog, Colby, followed her command to “sit” and “stay” in a busy store for the first time. The curly-haired shepherd/Labrador retriever mix perked up his ears as she slowly backed away — 5 feet, 10 feet, 15 feet. He squirmed with the urge to bound to her, but he kept his butt planted until she gave him the signal to come. Diba, 24, did a little celebration dance.
The victory, though, was bittersweet.
Diba couldn’t help thinking that her best friend, Kayden Clarke, who had encouraged and supported her as she trained Colby, a service dog, from puppyhood, would have been there with her had Mesa police not shot and killed him February 4 while attempting to prevent the transgender man from committing suicide.
Diba shared the story Monday night at a candlelight vigil in honor of Clarke.
About 150 people gathered at the Phoenix Civic Space Park, cradling tea light candles in paper cups, heads down, arms round one another.
Some, like Diba, were personal friends of Clarke's. But the event also attracted many who didn’t know Clarke in life and were been inspired by him in death.
Some came because Clarke, 24, identified as transgender and had been struggling, before his suicide attempt, to find acceptance in the community. Others came because Clarke had Asperger syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism, and they wanted to express their frustration with poor police protocols for dealing with the mentally ill and developmentally disabled.
One by one, they climbed up onto a concrete stage and shared their thoughts in the quiet moonlight.
“I think the worst part is that he was calling out for help and what he got was . . . murdered,” Diba said, fighting back tears as she gripped Colby’s red leash, wrapping it round and round her hands.
Two officers were put on administrative leave after Clarke’s death while Mesa investigates. According to a department spokesman, the cops, who had been called in to check on Clarke’s welfare, fired after he came out of the back bedroom of his apartment near 80th Street and Brown Road holding a kitchen knife.
Kourtney Stafford, chief executive officer and co-founder of Youth and Families First, a nonprofit that provides services to young people with mental and behavioral health issues, such as Clarke, encouraged people who struggle with suicidal thoughts to call a crisis hotline — not law enforcement — saying it was often "more helpful."
She acknowledged, however, that the healthcare system, too, failed Clarke.
According to friends, he had cycled through five therapists looking for help making the transition from female to male. Some told him to pray that he could “embrace the body God gave him.” Another allegedly told him that she would not administer hormone treatments until he “fixed” his Asperger syndrome.
“He was denied appropriate care for his autism and was denied appropriate care for his gender dysphoria,” said Abby Jensen, vice president of the Southern Arizona Gender Alliance. “Few people realize that access to appropriate mental healthcare is literally a matter of life or death.”
Clarke would have hated the attention, said his friend Marcus Connally, 19 — particularly the way the media has focused in on the challenges in his life. Clarke, a perfectionist who was, he said, "blunt" in an "endearing way," would have picked apart every story and "complained about it."
"He had Asperger's. He was transgender. But he was so much more than that," he said, adding that he and Clarke had enjoyed many happy times eating Olive Garden breadsticks (Clarke's favorite) and volunteering for animal rescue organizations. Shortly before his death, the two had made plans to attend the Renaissance Fair together.
At the same time, however, his friends thought it fitting that Clarke’s death has become a rallying point for social change
In life, Clarke was the kind of person who “wasn’t afraid to advocate for people with different needs," Kae Glenn, 21, who worked with Clarke at a Target store where he was a stocker and a cashier. “It was just who he was."
Clarke frequently posted vulnerable video diaries on YouTube about his struggles living with Asperger syndrome, navigating the mental and behavioral healthcare system, and finding acceptance as a transgender man. One video showing his Rottweiler, Samson, who he had trained to support him while he was having an Asperger's meltdown, was viewed by millions of people around the globe.
He also advocated for those with disabilities on a more personal level.
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He took an employer to court, for example, after the company refused to allow him to bring Samson to work to keep watch over him — a battle he eventually won. He put so much effort into it, he told Glenn, because he “didn’t want anyone else to have a panic attack at work and be denied access to a service animal.”
Diba described Clarke as the "strongest person" she'd ever known.
“The effect he’s had on the world before and after his passing has been tremendous,” Diba said. “I’ll never forget Kayden — and neither will you.”