April 2024 Church & State Magazine - April 2024

Remembering Nex: Let’s honor Nex Benedict by fighting to protect queer and trans kids

  Kendall Kalustyan

Nex was a straight-A student who enjoyed drawing, nature and their cat, Zeus. Nex played Minecraft and listened to rock music with their friends. Nex deserved so much more from this world.

Remembering Nex: Activists hold vigil in New York City (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Nex Benedict, a transgender, 16-year-old teenager from Owasso High School in Oklahoma, died on Feb. 8, 2024, after enduring a violent assault in the school restroom the day before. (Editor’s note: A medical examiner’s report later concluded that Nex died after overdosing on two drugs.)

Nex traces their heritage to the Choctaw Nation, where they lived on the Cherokee Nation Reservation. Nex, who used the pronouns they/them, loved cooking and reading, and their favorite show was “The Walking Dead.” Like many of us in the transgender community, Nex was on a journey of self-discovery that resulted in persistent bullying and harassment in school. Nex’s grandmother and guardian, Sue Benedict, told the Independent that despite these hardships, “I was so proud of Nex” and that Nex had a bright future.

Heartbroken doesn’t begin to describe the grief felt throughout the LGBTQ+ community. And yet, this feeling is all too familiar for so many of us who have lost loved ones due to violence. According to the Human Rights Campaign’s Fatal Violence Report, there were at least 32 deaths of transgender and gender non-conforming people in 2023. There have been at least two recorded deaths in 2024, and it’s only February.

Let me be clear — every single one of those lives was a life taken too soon and in vain. And yet there is something about Nex’s death in particular that rubs salt in the wound. Many in the LGBTQ+ community relate Nex’s death to that of Matthew Shepard in 1998, a 21-year-old gay college student at the University of Wyoming who was attacked and left to die. History repeats itself if we do nothing to change it.

This tragedy is only the most recent manifestation of the harms of policies crafted by Christian Nationalists. Ten states, including Oklahoma, have passed bathroom bans, prohibiting transgender students from using the bathroom consistent with their gender identity. Make no mistake, Nex’s death is a direct consequence of this legislative vitriol.

Nex’s death places this country at an inflection point with the transgender community. We can choose to allow another year to unfold where marginalized children are the punching bags of political discourse (and we know it will be worse than ever, since it’s an election year), or we can declare that enough is enough and we refuse to lose another life. 

Now more than ever, I want transgender and LGBTQ+ youth to know that you are loved, your light is so much brighter than their hate, and they can’t take that away from us. We have to keep fighting because queer and trans kids deserve to grow up in a world safe from violence. And because I believe in a tomorrow Nex can be proud of.

You can take action in the pursuit of justice for Nex and all LGBTQ+ people being persecuted in Oklahoma by signing AU’s petition to urge the Oklahoma Legislature to remove Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters from office and take appropriate measures to ensure the protection of LGBTQ+ students and staff in Oklahoma schools. To sign the petition, go to www.au.org/get-involved and scroll down to the blue box headlined, “Petition: Oust Superintendent Ryan Walters.”

And if you or anyone you know is in crisis, the following LGBTQ+ resources are available:

  • (988) +3 National LGBTQ+ Suicide Hotline
  • The Trevor Project at (866) 488-7386
  • Rainbow Youth Project at (317) 643-4888
  • Trans Lifeline’s Hotline at (877) 565-8860, which does not contact emergency services without a caller’s consent.     

Kendall Kalustyan is a recent member of AU’s Youth Organizing Fellowship program and is currently the policy coordinator at the Human Rights Campaign.

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