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Who’s to Blame for Nex Benedict’s Death?

Anti-LGBTQ+ Republicans contributed to the hate that led to the death of a non-binary teenager in Oklahoma.
Participant holds sign at a dance protest celebrating trans youth outside of the White House, Washington, D.C., February 2017. Photo courtesy of Ted Eytan (CC BY-SA 2.0).

We are learning more about the death of Nex Benedict, a non-binary high school student who died on February 8, the day after they were beaten in the school bathroom in Owasso, Oklahoma. We are also learning about ourselves, as Oklahomans, as we deal with the tragedy. But we are not alone. This bitter attack is a case study in the cruelty being spread across the nation by right-wing extremists. 

Vigils were held across the nation in honor of Nex, who has a Choctaw heritage. The diverse crowd I witnessed at the Oklahoma City vigil was so large that I could barely hear the speakers. We still don’t fully know everything about Nex’s death, but it is clear that it must be viewed within the context of vicious attacks on LGBTQ+ youth by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters and Governor Kevin Stitt as well as the fifty-plus Republican legislative bills attacking LBGTQ+ rights across the country.

Since he was elected in 2019, Governor Stitt has signed laws that restrict access to public school bathrooms; ban health care for transgender people under eighteen; ban transgender girls and women from school sports; and prohibit Oklahomans from obtaining nonbinary gender markers on official documents. He also signed, as the LGTBQ+ rights group GLAAD reported, “an executive order that defunds diversity, equity, and inclusion offices and programs in state agencies, including public colleges.”

Walters has a similar record: He has depicted transgender students as a threat in schools, and approved a permanent rule change that requires schools to get state approval before altering gender markers in a student’s records. Walters has advocated for book bans and described LGBTQ+-themed books as “pornographic material.” He also appointed Chaya Raichik, the founder of anti-LGBTQ+ social media account Libs of TikTok, to the education department’s Library Media Advisory Committee.

Beyond Walters and Stitt, state representatives have also spread hateful rhetoric in recent months. State Senator Tom Woods, for example, called LGBTQ+ Oklahomans “filth” during a panel. Days later, Woods chose to stand by his statement, saying:   

We are a religious state and we are going to fight it to keep that filth out of the state of Oklahoma because we are a Christian state—we are a moral state . . . . We want to lower taxes and let people be able to live and work and go to the faith they choose. We are a Republican state and I’m going to vote my district, and I’m going to vote my values, and we don’t want that in the state of Oklahoma.

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Oklahoma news outlets seem uncertain about how to deal with this blatant extremism and its potentially dangerous consequences. Even after reporting on trans hate speech, the normally reliable Tulsa World editorialized about concerns over how the story was playing out in social media because a “preliminary report from a medical examiner” autopsy by Owasso police stated that Nex “did not die from injuries from the altercation.”

But journalist Judd Legum, in his Popular Information newsletter, interviewed Lieutenant Nick Boatman, a spokesperson for the Owasso Police, who said that releasing such “piecemeal” information “is not a normal practice.” The Owasso Police were trying “to head off some of this national scrutiny,” he said.

And as the case gained more attention, the school reportedly received multiple threats, with at least one deemed credible by the FBI. “Boatman said the medical examiner did not explicitly tell him that Nex ‘did not die from something as a result of that fight,’” Legum wrote. “Boatman confirmed that, at this point, murder charges are still ‘on the table.’”

The Oklahoman reported that the full medical investigation into Benedict’s death could take four to six months. A video released by the Owasso police in February shows Nex in the hospital on the day of the altercation, being interviewed about what had happened. Benedict told the officer that the incident began when they and their friends were in the bathroom and the other three girls made fun of them. They continued: 

“They said something like ‘why do they laugh like that,’ and they were talking about us, in front of us. So I went up and poured water on them and all three of them came at me.’ The girls took Nex’s feet out from under them and started beating as they lay on the ground, Nex told the officer. They said their friends tried to pull the girls off before they blacked out.

The Oklahoman also reported that:

In the hospital interview, Thompson appears to dissuade Sue Benedict and Nex from filing charges. He tells them that he could file an assault charge against the girls but that it could mean assault charges for Nex as well for throwing water on them. “You got freedom of speech,” the officer tells them, referring to the three girls’ alleged taunts. “The minute you threw water on them you made the first jab. It may not go the direction you want it to go.”

“Running the mouth is freedom of speech, unfortunately,” the officer adds. “You can say mean, hurtful things all day long and you gotta let it roll off your shoulder.”

READ: Why It’s Important for Central Bucks School District to Create Learning Environments Where Students Feel Seen, Heard, and Valued

But the U.S. Department of Education announced it is investigating alleged discrimination and sex-based harassment at Owasso High School. This is a response, according to The Washington Post, to a complaint from the Human Rights Campaign urging the department to investigate “documented instances of bullying, violence, and harassment against Nex, which occurred in earnest over the course of the previous school year.”

These local and national responses to the death of Nex Benedict give me both hope and concern. I live in a deep “blue” part of a “purple” Oklahoma City. Local progressives are led by people like Sean Cummins, a local businessman who called out Superintendent Walters in advance of the tragedy, for inciting bomb threats and paving the way for more violence. 

“You emboldened these three girls yourself,” Cummins said in a statement he made before the state school board. “The blood is on you guys.”

Community members like Cummins give me hope. Over more than two decades, half of the city council members, county commissioners, and legislators who serve my neighborhood have been LQBTQ+. We elected the nation’s first Black, Muslim, and non-binary state representative, State House Representative Mauree Turner.

On the other hand, it was Turner who was censured by her colleagues in the legislature for letting a trans person sit in her office as she was complying “fully and completely with the investigation” of a transgender demonstrator at the state capitol building. The incident in question happened at a rally for trans rights when a protester grabbed the hands of a state trooper while he was arresting another transgender person who had allegedly thrown water and hit a trooper. 

Until recently, even in our conservative state, we seemed to be making very impressive progress on LGBTQ+ rights. But nationwide, extremists’ propaganda is endangering LGBTQ+ persons. Young people are especially endangered, and as some teenagers are encouraged to denigrate, harass, and assault others, the politics of cruelty and its tragic results seems likely to spread.

This article was originally published in The Progressive and reprinted here with permission.

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Picture of John Thompson

John Thompson

John Thompson is an award-winning historian and retired Oklahoma City teacher; author of A Teacher’s Tale: Learning, Loving, and Listening to Our Kids.

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