Opinion: We owe it to Nex Benedict to do better by bullied teens

When political leaders and others dehumanize and demonize people in a marginalized group, they inspire others to act on their own prejudices.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Activists in support of transgender rights hold a sit-in in front of a bathroom at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024.

There’s much we don’t know about why Nex Benedict, a nonbinary teenager in Owasso, Okla., died a day after a fight in a high school bathroom. But there are some things we do know, and all of them add up to tragedy.

We know that 16-year-old Nex, who often went by they/them pronouns with peers, was bullied at school. According to Sue Benedict, their biological grandmother and guardian, the bullying started in earnest last year. We know that Nex didn’t report the recent encounters to teachers or school officials. “I didn’t really see the point in it,” they are seen telling a police officer in a body-cam video released by the Owasso Police Department. “I told my mom, though.”

We don’t know definitively why these students were bullying Nex, but we know that they targeted at least one other gender-nonconforming student, and we know that Nex did not personally know their tormentors. When the police officer asked why the students were harassing them, Nex says, “because of the way that we dress.” Later they add that the girls didn’t like the way they and their friends laugh.

We know that Nex responded to the harassment by pouring water on the students, but we also know the bathroom fight didn’t appear to be an even match. “I got jumped at school. 3 on 1, had to go to the ER,” Nex texted a family member after the fight. The family’s attorney stated that the teen was “attacked and assaulted in a bathroom by a group of other students.” Nex collapsed at home the next day.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Activists in support of transgender rights hold a sit-in in front of a bathroom at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024.

We also know there’s a new law requiring students in Oklahoma to use the bathroom that corresponds to the gender they were assigned at birth, and we know that the law has spawned a kind of vigilante justice. “That policy and the messaging around it has led to a lot more policing of bathrooms by students,” Nicole McAfee, the executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, told The Times. “There is a sense of, ‘Do you belong in here?’”

The investigation of Nex Benedict’s death is ongoing. Last week, the Owasso Police Department said that preliminary information from the medical examiner, which was based on an autopsy, indicated that Nex “did not die as a result of trauma.” The statement did not provide a cause of death.

Calls to the advocacy organization Rainbow Youth Project USA spiked after news of Nex’s death hit the media. Eighty-five percent of those callers said they, too, were victims of bullying. Even the Oklahoma governor, Kevin Stitt, seemed to acknowledge that bullying and Nex’s death may have been linked: “The death of any child in an Oklahoma school is a tragedy,” he said in a statement, “and bullies must be held accountable.” No word on whether he, a Republican, recognizes his own party’s public attitude toward the L.G.B.T.Q. community as bullying. We don’t know yet why Nex Benedict died or whether they were bullied in the bathroom that day because of their gender identity, but we absolutely know that right-wing political leaders in Oklahoma have repeatedly demeaned and vilified queer people.

Ryan Walters, the state superintendent of Oklahoma schools, is known for his hostility to transgender rights. He threatened a state takeover of the Tulsa school system, in part for its “woke ideology.” He believes “radical gender theory” has put Oklahoma girls in danger. He created an emergency rule that prevents transgender students from changing their gender designation on school records. The list goes on and on. “This is a war for the souls of our kids,” Mr. Walters said shortly after his election. In the wake of Nex Benedict’s death, his position has not changed.

Mr. Walters’s brand of anti-trans language is common among far-right conservatives. Tucker Carlson has called gender transition “satanic.” Donald Trump’s stump speech includes a promise to cut federal funding to schools that allow “transgender insanity.” Just last Friday an Oklahoma state senator referred to L.G.B.T.Q. people as “filth.”

This kind of discourse has made life extremely dangerous for trans and gender-expansive Americans across the country. Deep in our bones we know it. When political leaders and influential media figures publicly dehumanize and demonize people in a marginalized group, they inspire others to act on their own prejudices. One trans high school student in Oklahoma told The Washington Post that he carries a bulletproof backpack. “I’m quite honestly scared to go to school every day,” he said.

We can debate till the cows come home whether hate speech should be protected by the First Amendment. But there can be no debate that hateful talk, especially from people in power, can at the very least tacitly permit hateful acts. Between 2018 and 2022, a period that coincides with rising political polarization and extreme speech, the number of hate crimes reported in schools nearly doubled.

Of all the wrenching details that have emerged in news coverage of Nex Benedict’s death, the one that broke my heart in two was a comment by the woman who raised them. “Nex did not see themselves as male or female,” Sue Benedict told Bevan Hurley of The Independent. “Nex saw themselves right down the middle. I was still learning about it, Nex was teaching me that.”

This grandmother in Oklahoma wasn’t condemning a child she didn’t understand. She was listening. She was learning. She was trying to understand. Don’t we all owe it to our children to listen? Don’t we owe it to all the young people in our care — in our families and in our communities — to try to understand the world as they are experiencing it?

But Republican leaders are working overtime to roll back hard-won L.G.B.T.Q. rights, and the only way they can do that is by interrupting any impulse toward empathy and compassion in their constituents. By interrupting any impulse simply to live and let live.

They don’t want to understand, and they don’t want other people trying to understand, either. They don’t want students reading books that acknowledge the full humanity of their queer friends. They don’t want them reading books that answer questions about what it means to be gay or bi or trans or nonbinary or simply questioning. They don’t want people to understand the danger they have put L.G.B.T.Q. people in. Republican politicians don’t want to understand any of this. They have decided it’s evil.

I once witnessed a woman shut down a round of judgmental gossip about a political figure who’d been caught in an extramarital affair. “That’s not our job,” she said mildly when someone asked her opinion of the scandal. Pressed to explain, she quoted the Gospel of Matthew: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”

She was saying that it’s God’s job to judge right from wrong. It wasn’t her job. As long as they aren’t hurting anybody else, people could go about living their own lives as they see fit. If God had an issue with it, they’d find out in due time.

It’s hard not to wonder what kind of culture we’d have right now if every politician who claims to be promoting “Christian values” took Christ’s words in the Gospel of Matthew as actual gospel. If every grandmother in every red state would take the time to listen to children who are trying to explain — or just to understand — their own identity.