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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
World
Ava Sasani

‘Scared for our kids’: anger mounts after non-binary teen dies following school fight

Teenager wearing a white shirt and waistcoat
Nex Benedict outside their home in Owasso, Oklahoma, last year. Photograph: Sue Benedict via AP

The death of a non-binary 16-year-old in Oklahoma has left LGBTQ+ Americans overwhelmed by anger and grief this week.

Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old non-binary student, died on 8 February after a “physical altercation” with classmates in their high school bathroom, according to a statement by local law enforcement on 21 February.

In a statement on the school’s website, school officials said: “Students were in the restroom for less than two minutes and the physical altercation was broken up by other students who were present in the restroom at the time, along with a staff member who was supervising outside of the restroom.”

By Thursday, no arrests had been made in connection with Nex’s death. Owasso police said that “preliminary information” from the medical examiner’s office suggested Nex had not died as a result of trauma.

Owasso police said an official autopsy report will be available “at a later date”, and that “further comments on the cause of death are currently pending until toxicology results” and other testing is completed.

For now, there’s still a shroud of mystery surrounding how the teenager died.

As the police investigation unfolds, Nex’s death has been a painful reminder of the increasing vulnerability of LGBTQ+ Americans, especially trans and non-binary children.

“While the information we have been able to gather leaves us with a still incomplete picture, we know that Nex Benedict, the student who died, faces being deadnamed and misgendered in death,” said Freedom Oklahoma, an LGBTQ+ advocacy group in a statement this week.

Shortly after Nex’s death, initial reports confused the student’s name and gender identity. In an update on a GoFundMe set up by Nex’s mother Sue Benedict, she said: “We are sorry for not using their name correctly and as parents we were still learning the correct forms. Please do not judge us as Nex was judged, please do not bully us for our ignorance on the subject. Nex gave us that respect and we are sorry in our grief that we overlooked them.”

School officials did not call an ambulance after the “altercation” on 7 February, because “it was determined that ambulance service was not required”, according to a statement released on Wednesday by the Owasso police department. Still, the school nurse recommended “that Nex Benedict visit a medical facility for further examination”.

Notably, Sue Benedict said in an interview with the Independent that her child had started to be bullied by other students last fall. The bullying began shortly after the Oklahoma governor, Kevin Stitt, signed a bill that prohibits transgender public school students from using the bathroom that matches their gender identity.

“I said ‘you’ve got to be strong and look the other way, because these people don’t know who you are’,” she told the publication. “I didn’t know how bad it had gotten.”

Stitt offered his condolences to Nex’s family in a statement on Wednesday, calling it “a tragedy” and said that “bullies must be held accountable”. The statement seemed hollow to LGBTQ+ people across Oklahoma – several of whom told the Guardian this week that their state has become increasingly hostile towards transgender and non-binary people.

“This is a direct result of hateful rhetoric about two-spirit and LGBTQ people,” said Sarah Adams, a two-spirit member of the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma. Two-spirit is a contemporary term used by many Indigenous cultures to describe a person who lives outside the gender binary of male and female.

Adams said that state leaders including Stitt have routinely antagonized two-spirit and LGBTQ+ people in Oklahoma, creating an unsafe learning environment for public school students like Nex.

“It is tragic that Nex did not receive the support that they needed to go to school and to just go to the bathroom safely,” she said. “It makes me feel so much anger and sadness that as a community, we failed Nex, and it makes me so scared for our kids.”

Oklahoma lawmakers have proposed more than 50 anti-LGBTQ+ laws in 2024 alone, more than any other state this year, according to the ACLU. In 2022, Oklahoma became the first state to enact an explicit ban on non-binary gender markers on birth certificates.

Just two weeks before Nex’s death, the Oklahoma’s schools superintendent, Ryan Walters, appointed the far-right social media influencer Chaya Raichik to the state committee that reviews the appropriateness of school library content. Raichik runs Libs of TikTok, an anti-LGBTQ+ social media account.

In a video released by the Oklahoma department of education last year, Walters described trans children as a danger to their classmates who put “our girls in jeopardy”.

For transgender people outside Oklahoma, the coverage and discussion of Nex’s death has been frustrating to behold. Some coverage has used Nex’s deadname and incorrect pronouns, prompting many transgender people to be frustrated by the lack of accountability from anti-LGBTQ+ lawmakers.

“We’ll see people throw their hands up and say, ‘Oh, we don’t know why this violent, horrible event happened.’ But everyone knows what stoked the hate, it’s all very intentional,” said Tiara Kelley, a drag performer in Colorado.

Kelley, who moved to Colorado from Florida in 2019, has become accustomed to anti-trans violence. Several of her friends were killed in the Pulse nightclub shooting of 2016, when a gunman massacred the patrons of the LGBTQ+ hotspot in Orlando. Just a few years later, Kelley was working at Club Q, an LGBTQ+ nightclub in Colorado Springs, where another mass shooting claimed the lives of five people, including a trans bartender who Kelley had befriended.

After the Colorado Springs shooting, LGBTQ+ advocates asked for accountability from Lauren Boebert, a far-right Colorado Republican congresswoman who had previously compared gender-affirming care for trans people to “child-grooming”.

Like Stitt, Boebert offered condolences after the 2022 shooting.

“These people, they tell the public that trans people are scary, that trans people hurt children, they repeat hateful falsities and myths,” Kelley said. “And then, when people get hurt, they act like their own rhetoric had nothing to do with it.”

The GoFundMe arranged by Sue Benedict and Kasandra Phelps had raised more than $100,000 by Thursday to “help take care of any funeral expenses” and “other children dealing with the right to be who they feel they are, in Nex Benedict’s name”.

Rural Oklahoma Pride, an LGBTQ+ organization, is planning a candlelight vigil to honor Nex’s memory this weekend.

“We hope that the people in government understand what has happened,” said a spokesperson for Rural Oklahoma Pride. “We need them to know that we are a part of Oklahoma too, Nex was a part of Oklahoma too. It’s time they hear us – we are not going to be silenced.”

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