Queer Teens Mourn Oklahoma Student’s Death

Lifestyle

When Oklahoma teenager Nex Benedict went to school on Feb. 7, months of bullying over their gender identity boiled over into a physical fight between them and three older girls in the school bathroom. The next day, Nex was dead. Now, as the circumstances around their death continue to develop, trans and queer youth tell Rolling Stone they’re hurt, angry, and scared for what could come for them.

Nex’s death is still under active investigation by the Owasso Police Department in Oklahoma. According to a representative for the Owasso School District, the school is cooperating with authorities but pushed back against rumors that no students had been punished in the aftermath of the fight. “Any notion that the district has ignored disciplinary action toward those involved is simply untrue,” the spokesperson said. “We recognize the impact that this event has had on the entire school community and it is our priority to foster an environment where everyone feels heard, supported, and safe.” But the death of the 16-year-old student, whose mother said identified as transgender or gender fluid, has also sparked a massive outcry from politicians and LGBTQ activists, who have blamed Benedict’s death and poor treatment on Oklahoma’s antagonistic policies surrounding transgender and nonbinary students. 

In 2022, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt supported explicitly anti-transgender legislation, signing into law a bill forcing public school students to use the bathroom based on the sex they were assigned at birth and prohibiting trans girls from participating on female sports teams. In 2023, Stitt signed a bill prohibiting nonbinary gender markers on state birth certificates. State leaders, like Oklahoma Superintendent Ryan Walters, publicly supported Chaya Raichik — the voice behind the anti-liberal engagement bait social media account Libs of TikTok. Walters appointed her to a volunteer position on the Department of Education Library Media Advisory Committee to protect Oklahoma children from “woke indoctrination,” a move heavily criticized by human rights organizations for directly leading to poor outcomes for trans youth. According to a national survey conducted by the non-profit organization The Trevor Project, a majority of LGBTQ students say they’ve been harassed at school, two out of three queer youth said hearing about anti-LGBTQ bills made their mental health worse, and half of transgender and nonbinary young people seriously consider suicide during childhood. 

Rolling Stone spoke to several nonbinary, queer, and gender-nonconforming American teens who all said Nex’s death isn’t just a tragedy — it’s a reality they feel like they can’t escape. 

Ezra B., a 17-year-old junior from Oklahoma who identifies as trans or gender nonconforming, tells Rolling Stone that Nex’s situation feels eerily familiar to his own. He attended the same school district when he was younger and even switched to homeschooling in 2017 after the school district in Bixby, Oklahoma, passed its own restrictive bathroom bill. His own first-hand experience at Oklahoma’s school system makes him feel “scared” and “devastated” by the circumstances surrounding Nex’s death. 

“This makes me feel almost entirely helpless,” Ezra says. “I don’t feel safe being my true self. I don’t feel safe in my state. I feel barely safe in my country at all. Nex’s death is not only a specific threat to LGBTQIA+ kids in Oklahoma, but it is a threat to all of us.”

Aries, a 17-year-old from Wisconsin, says many people fail to realize the toll schools that don’t support trans kids can have on their mental and physical health. For him, skipping class to escape intense bullying caused him to almost fail out of high school — and had already tried to commit suicide multiple times by the time he was a sophomore in high school. 

“Once I hit high school, the bullying had gotten really bad,” Aries tells Rolling Stone. “[People] would ask, ‘What’s in my pants?’ rape threats, stuff like that. So, growing up trans in a public school, it’s not a very fun or safe experience.”

In Tennessee, where Governor Bill Lee has spearheaded restrictive laws prohibiting gender-affirming care for minors and bans against public drag shows, recent graduate Rayne, 19, had a hard time making friends or feeling accepted. Rayne, who is gender nonconforming and uses they/them pronouns, says when they graduated, they felt like they had escaped. But once they heard Nex’s story, it made them second-guess their feelings about where they truly belong. 

“When I hear stories like Nex’s, it makes me think, ‘That could have been me.’ And it makes me think about all the other nonbinary kids in school right now in difficult situations and difficult states and how they’re doing,” Rayne says. “When you’re bullied as a young kid, it makes [you] see every person as a possible threat. Like maybe everyone’s out to get me. And I don’t want to see the world that way, but it’s how I’ve been conditioned. I had become so comfortable out of school. And then I hear a story like this and it makes me close back up again. It’s like, maybe it’s not over. Maybe, I don’t know, maybe it’s never going to be over.”

When Nex’s death was first reported, major media outlets published dozens of articles without Nex’s chosen name, pronouns, or gender identity — a mistake that commonly occurs when a trans child dies. Many of the mistakes were fixed once Nex’s family issued a statement confirming their pronouns and gender identity, but Cassia W., a nonbinary 18-year-old from Oregon, says comment sections online are still riddled with misgendering and hate. For Cassia, who uses they/them pronouns, it makes them fear what in-person discussions around Nex’s death are happening at the moment and worry that trans kids will bear the weight of speaking out. 

“Being trans is part of my identity, but it’s not the only thing that defines me. After I came out, I was expected to always speak up and always correct others and always advocate for my identity in places where I should’ve just been able to exist without needing to do all of those things,” Cassia says. “ I should have been able to just be a student. I wish I could just be a kid.” 

Growing up with a trans father, 18-year-old Quincy Coleman has always had some understanding and acceptance of gender identity. But the nonbinary student tells Rolling Stone that they experienced culture shock in middle school when they realized the transgender community was highly stigmatized and misunderstood. “It was kind of a shock because you go out into the real world, and you’re like, ‘Oh, God, people kind of hate us,’” they say. Now a senior in high school, the past few months of Coleman’s life have been dominated by decisions about colleges and future careers — a rite of passage that stings when they realize Nex will never get to participate. 

“Nex had this life. They had a cat named Zeus. They had probably thought about college,” Coleman says. “All of these things I know about myself were stuff that they were also planning on, and that hurts so much. It’s genuinely exhausting. Like, ‘how is this happening again?’”

Nex’s parents and family describe the late 16-year-old as a loving person who got straight A’s and liked playing video games, reading books, and drawing. They also say that even with the bullying, Nex was confident in their gender identity and educating others. After the family’s GoFundMe raised almost eight times their initial goal, an update posted by Nex’s mother announced: “The rest of the monies will go to other children dealing with the right to be who they feel they are, in Nex Benedict’s name.”

In a statement shared with Rolling Stone on Wednesday, Owasso PD spokesperson Nick Boatman said preliminary reports from the autopsy revealed that Nex’s death was unrelated to trauma and told The Independent that “all charges will be on the table.” But even with reports that police and Nex’s school are taking their death seriously and more eyes are on Nex’s story, trans teens tell Rolling Stone the future still feels uncertain. 

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“I wish that none of us had to hide who we are,” Ezra says. “And I wish that we didn’t have to deal with all this hate coming from coming at us from every angle just for being ourselves.”

“We’re all just kids. We’re literal children, and they’re doing this to us,” Aries adds. “We have the right to live.”

Read original source here.

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