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How the Death of a Nonbinary Oklahoma Teenager has Renewed Scrutiny on Anti-trans Policies

Nex Benedict

By Sean Murphy Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The death of a 16-year-old nonbinary high school student in Oklahoma whose family says was bullied has renewed scrutiny of anti-trans policies and political rhetoric over gender identity.

Nex Benedict identified as nonbinary and used they/them pronouns, according to their family. Benedict died Feb. 8, one day after a fight inside a girl’s bathroom at Owasso High School. Police in the Tulsa suburb have not released a cause of death but said this week that the teenager did not die as a result of injuries from the fight.

A vigil for the teenager was planned for Sunday in Owasso.

Here are some things to know about Benedict’s death and the investigation:

An altercation in the school bathroom

Benedict was able to walk out of the bathroom after the Feb. 7 fight but was taken to a hospital by their family and sent home that night. The next day, paramedics were dispatched to the home for a medical emergency and took Benedict to a hospital emergency room, where they later died, police said.

Nex Benedict’s mother, Sue Benedict, told The Independent that the teen suffered bruises all over their face and eyes in the fight involving a transgender student and three older girls.

The school district has said the students were in the restroom for less than two minutes before the fight was broken up by other students and a staff member.

Police and school officials have not said what provoked the fight. In a statement, the family has said they have launched their own independent investigation into what happened.

Youth crisis hotline sees spike

In the days since news of Benedict’s death became public, calls from Oklahoma to a national crisis hotline for LGBTQ+ youths have spiked by more than 500%, said Lance Preston, the founder and director of the Indiana-based Rainbow Youth Project USA, a group that aims to improve the safety and wellness of LGBTQ+ young people.

The group’s mental health crisis hotline typically receives an average of 87 calls per week from Oklahoma, a number that jumped to 474 calls through Thursday, Preston said.

“Unfortunately, this incident not only has scared these young people in Oklahoma, but we’re seeing kids from all over the country,” Preston said. “It’s really created kind of a storm.”

Of the calls from Oklahoma, Preston said 85% of those reported being bullied at school or on social media and nearly 80% reported fear of a physical assault. Nearly three dozen people who called the hotline identified as students at Owasso High School and more than a dozen identified as parents of students at the school.

Bullying at school

While bullying at school is not uncommon, experts say the problem is particularly acute for students who identify as nonbinary or transgender, and particularly for those who are transitioning.

Al Stone-Gebhardt, a transgender man who graduated last year from Tulsa Union Public Schools, less than 15 miles (24 kilometers) from Owasso, said he noticed an increase in anti-trans bullying and discrimination as state lawmakers started to introduce bills targeting trans youths. “I absolutely felt there was increased tension and vulnerability for trans people to attend school in Oklahoma,” he said. “It got pretty bad.”

Owasso Public Schools said in a statement this week that district officials are committed to student safety and ensuring an inclusive environment for all students. “We recognize the impact that this event has had on the entire school community and it is our priority to foster an environment where everyone feels heard, supported, and safe,” the statement said.

District spokesperson Jordan Korphage says the high school also has a student-led Equality Club that meets weekly and supports equality across all people, races, sexual orientations, and religions.

Anti-trans efforts in Oklahoma

Oklahoma’s Republican-led Legislature has passed several new laws targeting transgender and nonbinary people in recent years, including bills that prohibit children from receiving gender-affirming medical care and prohibiting the use of nonbinary gender markers on birth certificates.

Gov. Kevin Stitt also has signed bills that prohibit transgender girls and women from playing on female sports teams and prevent transgender children from using school bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity.

Among the many anti-trans bills being considered this year in Oklahoma are measures to ban gender-affirming care for adults, prohibit school employees from using a student’s preferred pronouns if they don’t correspond with the sex assigned at birth, and prohibit state laws or executive orders that recognize any gender besides male and female.

Oklahoma’s Superintendent of Public Schools, Ryan Walters, also has embraced anti-trans policies and faced bipartisan blowback after he appointed a right-wing social media influencer from New York known for posting anti-trans rhetoric to a state library panel. One of Chaya Raichik’s posts on her Libs of TikTok account on X showed an edited video critical of a public school librarian in Tulsa, leading to several consecutive days of bomb threats to schools in the district.
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This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Al Stone-Gebhardt’s name.

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Associated Press

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