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Nex Benedict’s death illustrates the hostility of Oklahoma’s anti-trans laws

Nex Benedict had been bullied for at least a year at Owasso High School in Oklahoma, their mother says (Courtesy of Benedict family)
Nex Benedict had been bullied for at least a year at Owasso High School in Oklahoma, their mother says (Courtesy of Benedict family)

The child’s death, from the outset, has been as confounding as it has been heart-wrenching.

Nex Benedict, a 16 year old from Oklahoma, went to school on an average day last month. There was a fight in the girls’ bathroom. The sophomore was left with visible injuries and went to hospital, where they told family and authorities about the alleged bullying that resulted in the fight.

Benedict texted a relative that they had a sore head that night. They collapsed the following afternoon; the teen stopped breathing at home and shockingly died just hours later in a Tulsa-area hospital. – Aand then this week, the local medical examiner ruled Benedict’s death a suicide.

A more detailed report will be released later this month. The death of Benedict has already become a rallying cry for LGBTQ rights, the high schooler’s face already nearly as recognizable as that of Matthew Shepard or Breonna Taylor – two victims killed in vastly different circumstances but whose deaths sparked social justice movements.

And there is an undeniable truth that stands out starkly amongst the anger and questions from the all sides regarding Benedict’s life : LGBTQ youth in America, particularly those who identify as trans and nonbinary, suffer abuse, mental health crises and death at an alarmingly higher rate than other groups.

Nex Benedict, 16, died last month after suffering injuries in a high school bathroom fight one day earlier; the teen’s death has been ruled a suicide by the local medical examiner (AP)
Nex Benedict, 16, died last month after suffering injuries in a high school bathroom fight one day earlier; the teen’s death has been ruled a suicide by the local medical examiner (AP)

The increase in anti-trans state laws impacts nearly every aspect of a trans person’s life, from the bathrooms they can use, to the sports they can play and their ability to access healthcare. And society’s behaviour towards trans and non binary, research shows, has a direct impact on those damning mental health outcomes.

“Nex’s death is a tragic reminder that we all have a role to play in reducing and eventually eradicating LGBTQ+ youth suicide,” Peggy Rajski, founder and interim CEO of The Trevor Project, told The Independent in a statement. “Research by The Trevor Project shows that having at least one accepting adult in an LGBTQ+ young person’s life significantly lowers their likelihood of attempting suicide. Whether a teacher, caregiver, neighbour or friend—supporting young people living in their truth is an affirming and life-saving act of allyship.”

A staggering 45 per cent of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, according to a comprehensive 2022 report from the Trevor Project – and nearly one in five transgender and nonbinary youth actually made an attempt.

When young people felt support and acceptance from the community, attempt rates dropped – from 20 per cent and 21 per cent for those who found their home and school environments, respectively, to be non-gender-affirming spaces, falling to 13 percent and 18 percent amongst young people with better support.

Myeshia Price, a senior research scientist on 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, emphasised in the report “the clear need to break down barriers to care and promote acceptance at the local level to help save young LGBTQ lives.”

Local activists in Oklahoma have been hammering home the same message since long before Benedict’s tragic death. The state has been particularly aggressive when it comes to curtailing and outright combating LGBTQ rights; last year, Oklahoma’s Republican governor signed an executive order defining an individual’s sex as the “biological sex” at birth, setting the tone from the top down amongst Oklahoma lawmakers.

“We’ve really seen trans young people, especially, targeted in their day-to-day life – and schools change,” Nicole McAfee, executive director of activist group Freedom Oklahoma, tells The Independent. Gov. Kevin Stitt in 2022 signed a transgender sports ban and the state’s Republican-led legislature has passed several new laws targeting the community, including bills prohibiting children from receiving gender-affirming medical care and prohibiting the use of nonbinary gender markers on birth certificates, AP reported.

Vigils and memorials for Benedict have been held throughout Oklahoma and further afield since the teen’s 8 February death (THE OKLAHOMAN)
Vigils and memorials for Benedict have been held throughout Oklahoma and further afield since the teen’s 8 February death (THE OKLAHOMAN)

School became a battleground for trans students.

“Schools initially became hostile when they banned students from playing sports, if they weren’t on a team based on their sex assigned at birth, and require now annual gender contracts to affirm people’s sex assigned at birth,” McAfee says.

Nearly 58 per cent of of LGBT+ youth in Oklahoma felt unsafe at school, according to a 2022 survey from the Human Rights Campaign. Less than half of trans and gender nonconforming students in Oklahoma believe teachers and staff care about them, compared to two-thirds of trans youth in other states, the survey found.

“Single sex bathroom restrictions moved through in a bill at the last minute and meant that a lot of students who had had affirming bathroom policies at school … suddenly had to be in situations where they were either outing themselves to their classmates, outing themselves to adults in the school who were potentially unsafe, and/or trying to access single sex facilities that are oftentimes really limited on campuses.”

Last month, Oklahoma’s Republican superintendent of public schools, Ryan Walters, made the controversial appointment to the state’s library advisory committee of Chaya Raichik, who runs the anti-trans Libs of TikTok account – which had previously prompted the resignation of a teacher in Benedict’s own district after he was secretly filmed telling students to be true to themselves with or without their parents’ support.

Al Stone-Gebhardt, a transgender man who graduated last year from a nearby school district to Owasso, told The Associated Press he’d noticed an increase in anti-trans bullying and discrimination as state lawmakers started to introduce bills targeting trans youths.

“I absolutely felt there was increased tension and vulnerability for trans people to attend school in Oklahoma,” he said. “It got pretty bad.”

Nex Benedict with their cat Zeus; the teen is being mourned not just by family but also by countless around the world, the death shining a spotlight on anti-trans legislation in Oklahoma (Courtesy of Benedict family)
Nex Benedict with their cat Zeus; the teen is being mourned not just by family but also by countless around the world, the death shining a spotlight on anti-trans legislation in Oklahoma (Courtesy of Benedict family)

McAfee also highlighted how Walters last year “implemented administrative rules that required forced outings, so any educator or school staff person who finds out that a student is queer or trans and is using pronouns other than those which they believe are

‘correct’ for that student have to immediately tell their family, whether or not those family members are safe.”

She believes that “one of the reasons that we see such egregious curtailing of a race in

Oklahoma is that we are one of the few legislatures in the country where there isn’t any public testimony on the record.”

That means voters don’t get a chance to stand up in front of politicians during the legislative process and tell thempoliticians how these laws change their lives.

“So as legislators are passing these bills, they have insulated themselves from having to hear about the harm they’re causing, from having to hear from the people that they are targeting,” McAfee said, adding: “They can pass these things without having to oftentimes engage with the reality of what they’re doing.”

Regardless of the ultimate autopsy findings when they’re released later this month, activists and Benedict’s family place blame for the teen’s death on the hostile attitudes towards the teen’s gender identity.

Freedom Oklahoma has “said from the beginning that whether Nex died as a result of the physical or emotional harm he was subjected to, our elected officials, our appointed State Board of Education, Owasso High School, and all of us failed Nex in allowing for policies and rhetoric that created a regularly hostile environment for a kid just trying to live as his authentic self,” McAfee said Wednesday in a statement following the autopsy findings.

Even the President has waded into the tragedy, calling nonbinary and transgender people “some of the bravest Americans I know.

“But nobody should have to be brave just to be themselves,” President Joe Biden said Thursday. “In memory of Nex, we must all recommit to our work to end discrimination and address the suicide crisis impacting too many nonbinary and transgender children. Bullying is hurtful and cruel, and no one should face the bullying that Nex did. Parents and schools must take reports of bullying seriously.”

Tragically, however, further research shows that a lack of societal acceptance continues to plague members of the community as they age, further eroding mental health. According to a 2023 study in Psychiatry Research, 44 per cent of transgender adults reported recent suicidal ideation, 7 per cent reported a recent suicide attempt and 21 per cent reported recent non-suicidal self-injury.

“The rates of suicidal ideation and self-injury among transgender people are alarming—particularly for transgender nonbinary adults,” study co-author Ilan H. Meyer, distinguished senior scholar of public policy at UCLA’s Williams Institute, said following its publication.

“A lack of societal recognition and acceptance of gender identities outside of the binary of cisgender man or woman and increasing politically motivated attacks on transgender individuals, increase stigma and prejudice and related exposure to minority stress, which contributes to the high rates of substance use and suicidality we see among transgender people.”

And that horrifying reality has now resulted in a dead transgender child.

If you are experiencing feelings of distress, or are struggling to cope, you can speak to the Samaritans, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email jo@samaritans.org, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch. If you are based in the USA, and you or someone you know needs mental health assistance right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Helpline on 1-800-273-TALK (8255). This is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you are in another country, you can go to www.befrienders.org to find a helpline near you.