LGBTQ Equality

A nonbinary high school student in Oklahoma is dead. Will officials finally stop their hateful anti-LGBTQ+ crusade?

  Rob Boston

Nex Benedict, a nonbinary 16-year-old sophomore at Owasso High School in Oklahoma, was allegedly beaten to death by three girls in a school bathroom Feb. 7. In the wake of the brutal assault, many people are asking how the state’s anti-LGBTQ+ policies may have played a role in the teen’s death.

According to media accounts, school officials didn’t summon an ambulance for Benedict, who used they/them pronouns. Nex’s mother, Sue Benedict, took Nex to a hospital where they were treated and discharged. But the next day, Nex collapsed. Sue Benedict called an ambulance, and Nex died later that day in the hospital.

Details about what exactly happened at the school remained hazy, and police are investigating. But one thing is clear: Benedict had undergone harassment for the past year, and Oklahoma’s policies only made their situation worse. The state passed a law requiring students to use the bathrooms that match the sex listed on their birth certificates, and Ryan Walters, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, has advocated for a rule denying trans students the right to change their genders on school files.

Trans rights under attack nationwide

Transgender and nonbinary public school students face challenges nationwide, and the situation in Oklahoma is especially dire. Walters openly trades in anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and is on a crusade to force fundamentalist Christianity into the state’s schools.

Walters routinely fulminates against secular public education. He recently hired anti-LGBTQ+ hate figure Chaya Raichik for a state school book advisory (read: censorship) committee even though Raichik doesn’t live in Oklahoma and has no background in education. Her selectively edited videos have led to bomb threats against dozens of public schools and other institutions. It’s highly irresponsible to bring her into any position of public power.

Through actions like this, Oklahoma officials have made it clear that they don’t value trans/nonbinary students. As a result of the state’s policies, journalist and LGBTQ+ advocate Erin Reed has identified Oklahoma as one of the most dangerous states for trans youth and adults. (Reed, known by the social media handle @ErinInTheMorn, will be a keynote speaker at AU’s Summit for Religious Freedom in April.) The state consistently sends the message that there is something wrong with being this way and tells them that their rights are meaningless. Walters is happy to use trans and nonbinary kids as pawns to frighten people as he seeks to grasp the next rung on the career ladder.

Policies empower bullies

All this creates a structure whereby bullies and bigots have been granted tacit permission to target those who are different. When the highest authorities in the state’s education system aggressively push policies that discriminate against the “other,” teenagers notice that.

“We hope that Walters, Stitt and other Oklahoma officials learn from this horrific tragedy and pull back on their crusade to devalue LGBTQ+ people and destroy separation of church and state,” Americans President and CEO Rachel Laser said in a media statement. “All decent people must hold these state officials accountable for the consequences of their rhetoric and actions.

“The memory of Nex Benedict demands nothing less.”

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