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After Nex Benedict’s death, LGBTQ+ Oklahomans vow to ‘not let the hate take over’

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The recent death of nonbinary student Nex Benedict, who died one day after a physical altercation inside a school bathroom, has sent shockwaves throughout the LGBTQ+ community in Oklahoma.

While it’s not clear whether the incident involved Nex’s gender identity, the 16-year-old’s family has said the teen endured months of bullying at Owassa High School. For Sarah Adams and other parents of queer kids, it has again raised the haunting question: “Where can we be truly safe?”

The question takes on added weight in a state that has introduced more than 50 anti-LGBTQ+ pieces of legislation so far this year — more than any other state in the nation, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Oklahoma lawmakers pushed more than 40 bills in the previous session.

“It’s the worst fear of any parent that your child could be harmed and you won’t be there to help.”

As members of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Adams and her son are both Two-Spirit. The Indigenous term that can refer to gender identity or sexual orientation, and is used in different contexts depending on the tribe. For Adams, it reflects her masculine and feminine spirit.

“It’s the worst fear of any parent that your child could be harmed and you won’t be there to help,” she said. “It feels like we’ve failed at being able to do the one thing that we should be able to do and that’s to be able to protect our kids.”

Many details remain unknown about Nex’s death, two weeks after the teen was declared dead at a local hospital. The Owasso Police Department said an investigation is ongoing. Separate autopsy and toxicology reports are expected too.

What has become clear for many within Oklahoma’s 2SLGBTQ+ (Two-Spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning and other identities) community is they do not feel safe.

Lawmakers have banned trans and nonbinary students from using bathrooms that align with their gender identity, eliminated gender-affirming care for minors, and passed a law narrowly defining of “male” and “female,” making clear that queer and trans people in Oklahoma are under attack, said Nicole McAfee, the executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, an LGBTQ+ advocacy group.

“It’s created a real environment across the state and in schools of gender policing by staff and students who were oftentimes parroting this rhetoric that they were hearing from state elected officials,” she said. “It’s made schools a really hostile experience and spaces where kids feel increasingly isolated.”

Nine years ago, Adams founded Matriarch, a group for Indigenous women, Two-Spirit individuals and their kids.

Once she recognized that Indigiqueer children also needed a space to be together, to talk, learn and play games together without fear of violence or persecution, she helped co-create Cousins, a group for 2SLGBTQ+ children to be around other kids like them.

“We have to remember to balance the grief with the joy of what it means to be part of this community,” she said.

Two weeks ago, Cousins went on a trip to San Francisco for the Two-Spirit Powwow that featured traditional music, dances, food and celebration.

Adams said the joy shared between the members of Cousins gave her hope.

“We have a duty to make sure our kids do no harm and that they understand that diversity and that being in a place with differences is a good thing and something we should be embracing and celebrating,” Adams said. “Any decision I’ve ever made in kindness, I’ve never regretted. That feels like a really great lesson for everyone to learn.”

Sue Benedict, Nex’s grandmother, told The Independent that Nex had been bullied for more than a year. She said it began after Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a new law that required trans students to only use bathrooms that aligned with their sex assigned at birth.

“The death of any child in an Oklahoma school is a tragedy — and bullies must be held accountable,” the governor said in a statement this week. “As we await the results of the investigation, I urge Owasso Police and Owasso Public Schools to be forthcoming and transparent with the public.”

Owasso police said in a preliminary report that Nex’s death “was not the result of trauma.” The Benedict family released a statement through an attorney expressing concern about the “troubling” facts known to them.

“The Benedicts know all too well the devastating effects of bullying and school violence, and pray for meaningful change wherein bullying is taken seriously and no family has to deal with another preventable tragedy,” the statement read.

McAfee said they believe that the police statement discounts the effects emotional abuse can have on a person.

“Whether Nex’s death was the result of physical or emotional hate-based violence, that harm and all of the rhetoric that allows for it certainly played a role,” she said.

This has concerned trans and queer youth, and their families, across the state. One mother from Norman, Oklahoma, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of violence against them and their trans son, said she’s trying to remain optimistic despite the hateful rhetoric she’s seen from lawmakers in the state.

This mother said that her son did not experience violence or bullying firsthand in high school. But now, as a freshman at a university in the state, he’s shaken by Nex’s death and what it could mean for people like him.

“We are trying to not let the terror take over and not let the hate take over,” she said. “We are not victims. We have a voice, and we have agency.”

Four vigils are being planned around the state later this month in honor of Nex, including two in Tulsa and one in Oklahoma City. Family and friends are remembering the teen for being a straight-A student, a gamer with a love for Minecraft and animals, especially for a pet cat named Zeus.

Adams said Cousins plans on attending several of the events. The group wants to show up for Nex and let the family know they stand with them and will not be scared into hiding.

A new agenda for Cousins’ meetings was already set for 2024. Talks about Indigenous rights and tribal sovereignty are scheduled, as well as time to give kids the space to play and be themselves.

But now, organizers are considering a new topic for the 2SLGBTQ+ kids attending — how to process grief.


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