Justice for Nex Benedict!

Nex Benedict

On Feb. 8, Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old Choctaw nonbinary student living on the Cherokee Reservation in Owasso, Oklahoma, died after an attack the day before by three presumably cisgender girls who had been harassing them and their friend. Benedict, who used they/them pronouns, allegedly poured water on the girls in retaliation for continued harassment, including an incident that they had experienced a week prior.

After the attack on Feb. 7, Benedict was taken to the hospital, where police asked them questions while their grandmother and adoptive parent, Sue Benedict, sat nearby. Benedict told the interviewer that the girls were making fun of the way that Benedict and their friend carried themselves and that this transphobic bullying had been going on for a full year. During the attack, Benedict fell and hit their head on the ground; Benedict said that they then blacked out.

Despite the fact that Benedict was responding to transphobic and queerphobic harassment, they were suspended from school for two weeks and told that if they pursued charges, they could be punished for the water incident even though it was in response to continued bullying.

On Feb. 8, Nex Benedict collapsed in their living room. It was reported that their eyes rolled back and they were struggling to breathe. At the hospital that evening, Benedict died.

Attention to this case has increased since the time of Benedict’s death. Because of the political struggle between gender nonconforming students and anti-queer lawmakers, and after pressure from the LGBTQIA2S+ community and friends of Benedict and other victims of anti-queer bullying, the Owasso Police Department has been somewhat more forthcoming with information. 

Yet on Feb. 21, although the medical examiner’s office still hadn’t released its autopsy report or the toxicology results, the police claimed that Benedict did not die as a result of trauma.

Political attacks on trans youth encourage bullying

While it may not be known what caused Benedict’s death, what is known is that the climate created by attacks on trans and nonbinary students by lawmakers has led to increased attacks on trans and nonbinary students, including by other students. 

As the Center for Native American Youth stated: “The lack of immediate action by school leadership shows a pervasive, country-wide ambivalence to the safety of our non-binary and LGBTQ2S+ youth. The increased violence and legislation occurring across the nation against the LGBTQ2S+ community, particularly our youth, is a systemic issue that impacts the lives and the wellbeing of future generations.” (cnay.org) 

Even if Benedict died due to something completely unrelated to the Feb. 7 assault — as the Owasso police claim without proof — it doesn’t change the fact that Benedict was verbally and physically harassed for being nonbinary. It doesn’t change that the state and school knew about it and did worse than nothing, even threatening police action against Benedict.

Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters has engaged in repeated attacks on trans and queer students, claiming that while trans students deserve “dignity and respect,” it doesn’t change the “truth” that “There’s not multiple genders. There’s two.” (New York Times, Feb. 23) For all the “dignity and respect” he claims Benedict deserves, Walters refused to respect the most basic fact about Benedict: that they were nonbinary and deserving of a learning space that grants them respect and safety. 

Cherokee National Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr, commenting on Nex’s death stated: “The public sentiments expressed in response to Nex’s death move me to reaffirm a statement I made in January on the subject of celebrating diversity, equity, and inclusion in public education. ‘All children… benefit from learning in environments in which we celebrate diversity and recognize the dignity of everyone’s experience.’  The more we learn about Nex’s life, the more we come to know a wonderful child whose experience and identity mattered and was worth celebrating. Above all, Nex deserved to live a full life.  It was cut tragically short.”  (Indianz.com, Feb. 20)

Transgender people and gender nonconforming people are fighting for our rights and our dignity. Children like Benedict shouldn’t have to defend themselves against violent queerphobic bullies who only get more emboldened when they see adults bullying. It shouldn’t be up to us and only us to protect ourselves. 

Everyone who cares about the wellbeing of children and teens who are queer, including cisgender people, should be fighting against transphobic bigotry. We shouldn’t have to die in order to get respect for who we are. Nex Benedict should still be alive and living in their truth as a nonbinary person.

For Benedict, for all those who will inevitably die for their gender identities, and for all victims of bigoted assaults, everyone should tell those who want to harm queer children: No, bullying is never okay!

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