Nex Benedict’s death is an ‘awakening moment’ for parents of trans kids in Oklahoma

By Kate Sosin, Nadra Nittle

Originally published by The 19th

As news broke this week about the death of 16-year-old nonbinary student Nex Benedict, who died after a fight in a school bathroom, crisis calls to an Oklahoma LGBTQ+ support organization more than quadrupled — with 69 percent of callers referencing Benedict.

As parents, youth and the larger community grapple with the news, Lance Preston, the executive director of the Rainbow Youth Project, said he wants queer youth to know they are well-supported in the state.

“We have an entire army that is standing beside them,” Preston said. “People are not going to ignore them.”

Benedict died on February 8, one day after a fight in a Owasso High School bathroom in which they were beaten. It is unclear if the incident was hate motivated due to Benedict’s gender, but the youth had reported increasing anti-transgender bullying throughout the school year after Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed into law a bill requiring students to use a bathroom that aligned with their sex assigned at birth.

Owasso Public Schools said in a statement that school officials responded appropriately to the fight and have cooperated with the Owasso Police Department’s investigation into Benedict’s death. The district said that all of the students involved walked on their own to the assistant principal’s office and were medically evaluated, per school policy, by a nurse.

“While it was determined that ambulance service was not required, out of an abundance of caution, it was recommended to one parent that their student visit a medical facility for further examination,” the district said in its statement.

Owasso Police said Wednesday that a preliminary autopsy indicates Benedict didn’t die of trauma and that officials are waiting for the results of a toxicology report, which could take months.

The district declined to provide details about the disciplinary measures taken against students involved in the fight due to federal privacy laws. Benedict’s mother told The Independent that Owasso High School officials told her that her child would be suspended for two weeks for the physical altercation. She added that Benedict explained that the fight now linked to their death involved them and a transgender classmate against three girls, all older.  

Preston said he has seen a shift in the parents of trans kids.

“It’s kind of been an awakening moment for them,” he said. “Whether they were supportive before, now they’ve kind of gone into that hyper-supportive mode to make sure that they’re doing everything right.”

One mom called Preston on Tuesday crying.

“She had misused a pronoun [with her transgender child] and corrected it immediately but was worried to death that that was going to be enough to harm her child.”

We send our children out into this world every day in fear of something like this happening. — Chelsea Richardson

Chelsea Richardson, whose transgender son Vinny Langworthy survived his own bathroom harassment in high school, made the decision to stay in Oklahoma and provide safe places for kids like her son by opening a bookstore.

Richardson was at her store, getting ready for her grand opening, when the alert about Benedict hit her phone. She felt her heart hit her stomach.

“We send our children out into this world every day in fear of something like this happening,” she said.

Langworthy was out as transgender for his entire time at Harding Charter Preparatory, about two hours southwest of Owasso. He socially and medically transitioned as he got older, and other students started to read him as male. One day, another student took a photo of his feet and legs from under a bathroom stall and posted it to Snapchat, he said. The photo was captioned with an anti-trans slur.

“​​It was definitely just a hard situation to navigate or always feel like you’re being watched,” Langworthy said.

No longer safe to use student bathrooms, Langworthy used the teachers’ bathrooms, a change that made him late for class or prevented him from using a bathroom at all. He started coming home with urinary tract infections.

Queer kids here are not safe in schools. – Vinny Langworthy

He graduated without a solution. Now 18, he said the news of Benedict and the alleged bullying they faced infuriated him.

“Students should be protected and taken care of no matter their gender identity,” he said. “Queer kids here are not safe in schools.”

Eridian Dempsey of Stand with Trans, which supports transgender youth and their families, said that bullied LGBTQ+ are often disciplined by schools rather than supported by them.

“That happens all the time,” said Dempsey, who is an intern with Stand with Trans, part of the organization’s Youth Advisory Board and its Therapy Assistance Program coordinator. “It’s essentially scapegoating the trans child even though they didn’t necessarily do anything and they were defending themselves if they even fought back. If they didn’t, why are they being blamed in the first place?”

It’s not clear if Benedict and their transgender classmate were in the bathroom together to offer protection to each other, but Dempsey recommends that trans students and their supporters take part in an effort called I’ll Go With You in which allies accompany trans youth into restrooms and other spaces where they may be concerned about their safety.

“They have buttons that people will wear to show that they’re willing to go to the bathroom to help keep trans individuals safe,” Dempsey said.  

Although these efforts help, they don’t address why trans youth are targets of bullying and abuse in the first place. Dempsey said that state and local policies contribute to the problem.

“One hundred percent there’s no doubt about it that when the state says we are not OK with trans people living as who they are, then that tells the kids in the schools, ‘If you don’t feel OK with trans people, good for you,’” Dempsey said.

Benedict’s mother learned about the bullying the teen reportedly endured in early 2023, months after the governor signed a bill that mandated students to use only school bathrooms that correspond with their sex assigned at birth.  

Rachel Laser, CEO and president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in a statement that Stitt and Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters have contributed to the hostile climate against LGBTQ+ youth in the state through their efforts to integrate anti-trans laws and fundamentalist Christianity into public schools.

“Oklahoma approved the nation’s first religious public school, which will discriminate against LGBTQ+ students, and Walters appointed Chaya Raichik of Libs of TikTok, unqualified internet bully, to ban books and oversee school safety,” Laser said. “The hostile, Christian Nationalist environment Walters and Stitt have nurtured in Oklahoma public schools has created a permission structure for anti-LGBTQ+ persecution, and it’s no surprise that teens noticed.”

Cait Smith, director of LGBTQI+ policy at liberal think tank the Center for American Progress, said that when young trans people hear that lawmakers are debating their very existence in state governments, it is extremely harmful. They pointed out that last year more than 60 percent of anti-LBGTQ+ bills introduced into states nationwide specifically targeted youth.

“When we have anti-LGBT bills talking about what schools should and shouldn’t do, it takes away the ability of school staff and families to make those decisions among themselves, among the experts and folks that are closest to the schools and students,” Smith said. “Really, this should be up to families. It should be up to students in schools to be able to foster and find the right policies to foster safe and affirming environments at school.”

Nicole Pointdexter and her son said they were not in a position to stay and fight. The two fled the state for Colorado after Stitt signed a gender-affirming care ban for youth last May.

“They broke up my family,” she said. “I have two boys that still live in Oklahoma.”

Pointdexter and her ex-husband amicably co-parent their three children. In Oklahoma, Poindexter and her ex lived a five-minute walk from each other, and the kids traveled between houses. All of the adults, including the parents’ new partners, enjoyed family meals together. But the gender-affirming care ban made it impossible for Pointdexter’s trans son to stay in Oklahoma. Her ex-husband couldn’t leave his job. Her twin boys didn’t want to give up their spots on their baseball team.

“It was incredibly difficult to make that decision,” she said.

According to research from The Trevor Project, which works to prevent suicide among LGBTQ+ youth, 90 percent of LGBTQ+ youth in Oklahoma say that recent politics have negatively impacted their well-being sometimes or frequently. Forty-seven percent reported that they’ve been physically threatened or harmed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Only 31 percent agreed that their school was an LGBTQ+-affirming space.

“Young people deserve to go to school without fearing for their safety, regardless of their identity,” said Janson Wu, senior director of state advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project. “We hope that leaders in Oklahoma and across the U.S. wake up to the reality that targeting trans and nonbinary youth has real and dire consequences.”

When trans youth and their families hear about tragedies like Benedict’s death, it escalates their anxiety by reinforcing the message that it’s not OK to be trans, Dempsey said. Parents worry that they can’t keep their trans children safe in hostile schools with a hostile political climate to match. Parents with bullied trans children need to document each incident carefully, including which school personnel they asked to intervene and the outcomes of their meetings with those officials, Dempsey recommended.

I want those people who are going to school today who might be scared to know that there are people fighting for them. – Chelsea Richardson

They also said that parents should try to openly communicate with their children on an ongoing basis because children may not bring up that they’re being bullied in a conversation unprompted.

Smith wants trans students who feel scared in the wake of Benedict’s death to know that they’re not alone.

“It is scary to see this happen to a member of your community,” they said. “We are going to keep fighting. We’re going to keep pushing back against harmful policies. In the meantime, I want those people who are going to school today who might be scared to know that there are people fighting for them.”

Richardson wants them to know that, too. She has already received threats because she plans on opening a welcoming book store. She isn’t scared.

“I’ve never liked a bully, and I’ve never backed down from a bully,” she said. “So I’m kind of like … let’s do this. We’re not going anywhere. You’re not gonna bully us out of this state.”

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