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COLUMN: Nex Benedict deserved to live and so do trans youth in Kentucky

Samuel Colmar
Rallyists hold up signs in opposition during the KY Fairness Rally on Feb. 15, 2023, at the Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort, Kentucky. Photo by Samuel Colmar | Staff

The death of Nex Benedict, a nonbinary teenager of Indigenous descent, in Oklahoma has become the focal point of the political fight over the rights of transgender people — and trans youth in particular — since it made national headlines last month.

Benedict, who used he/him and they/them pronouns, died Feb. 8 after allegedly being assaulted the day before by three cisgender girls in the restroom of the high school they attended in Owasso, Oklahoma. The exact circumstances are currently a point of contention between officials and Benedict’s family and friends, but what has been confirmed is enough to draw outrage.

According to what those close to Benedict said in a New York Times article, they had been the target of bullying at their high school for a year leading up to what the school district has called an “altercation” in the girls’ restroom. Following the alleged assault by the three girls, the school declined to call an ambulance for Benedict and suspended them for two weeks for their involvement in the incident.

Benedict was taken to a hospital after school, where they described the event to a police officer who can be heard in body cam footage discouraging Benedict from pressing charges, according to an NPR article. The next day, Benedict collapsed at their home and was later pronounced dead.

The investigation by local authorities is ongoing, but a one-page summary of the medical examiner’s autopsy report was released March 17 stating that Benedict’s death was a suicide caused by an overdose on an antihistamine and an antidepressant. Benedict’s family has responded by sharing information about the extent of their injuries sustained during the alleged assault in the restroom.
Although a full autopsy report has not been released at the time of this writing and answers about Benedict’s death continue to elude the public, I am comfortable saying one thing with certainty: transphobia killed Benedict, and it will kill more trans kids unless it is stopped.

While it was reported that the district attorney for Tulsa County is not seeking to press charges, it is irrelevant whether Benedict’s death was a homicide or suicide. There is a clear link between the circumstances leading up to their death and the behavior of the officials in their school, their district and their state.

Oklahoma has passed some of the most stringent anti-trans legislation in the country. One bill signed into law in 2022 barred trans students from using the public restrooms that align with their gender identities, which was the reason Benedict had to use the girls’ restroom at all. Another has criminalized gender-affirming healthcare for minors, and one has been proposed that would restrict all residents of Oklahoma from changing their sex markers on their birth certificates and prohibit gender neutral designations.

Ryan Walters, the head of the Oklahoma Department of Education, has made it his mission to purge what he calls “radical gender theory” from schools in the state, appointing the notorious anti-trans influencer Chaya Raichik, known for the multi-platform “Libs of TikTok” accounts, to the state’s Library Media Advisory Committee. He has offered platitudes about Benedict’s death but also reaffirmed his commitment to resisting “woke gender games” at the same time.

The clearest and most infuriating display of official transphobia, however, was the response of Oklahoma State Sen. Tom Woods to a question about anti-LGBTQ+ legislation at a public forum, in which he referred to queer people as “filth.” Although several audience members were reportedly shocked by his remark, many others applauded.

Republicans have pushed similar or identical bills in other states, including Kentucky, which targeted trans youth with Senate Bill 150 — a law that requires school officials to out students to their parents for socially transitioning at school, among other things — last year. There is no doubt in my mind that the violence invited by these anti-trans policies will come home to roost in Kentucky unless something changes.

While the teenage girls involved in this case are by no means absolved of responsibility for allegedly provoking and beating Benedict, their actions were certainly the result of the callous demonization of trans people by powerful adults around them. Should this episode of transphobic violence repeat itself in Kentucky, the same will be true for the powerful adults in this state.

Benedict was only 16 years old; my younger brother will be 16 this year. 16-year-olds should be worrying about things like deciding who to ask out on a date or saving up for their first car so they can look back at that phase of their life years later and reflect on how much they have grown. My brother will probably get to have that experience, but Benedict was robbed of it because those around them decided being trans made them unworthy of such fulfillment.

The fact that politicians and school officials in Oklahoma and elsewhere would endanger the lives of children for their cynical political games while claiming to protect them inspires disgust and fury in me the likes of which I cannot adequately put into words. Trans people of any age will never be the threat to society that the reactionaries who attack them are.

There has been a bill proposed in the Kentucky House of Representatives to repeal Senate Bill 150. If there is any truth to the insistences of Republicans that they wish to protect children, they will support the passage of House Bill 376. It should not take another Benedict to convince people that trans children deserve to live.

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Samuel Colmar, Assistant Photo Editor

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