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Oklahoma’s queer community mourns 16-year-old in state that leads the nation in anti-LGBTQ bills

Nex Benedict’s death has left the state’s trans, queer and Indigenous communities in mourning. Chief Gary Batton told one outlet that Nex’s mother is a member of the Choctaw Nation.
Nex Benedict outside the family’s home in Owasso, Okla., in Dec. 2023.
Nex Benedict outside the family’s home in Owasso, Okla., in Dec. 2023.Sue Benedict via AP file

Oklahoma’s queer community is reeling after the death of an LGBTQ teen who allegedly faced bullying at school for months.

Nex Benedict, 16, died Feb. 8, a day after the Owasso High School sophomore was allegedly assaulted in a school bathroom, according to Nex’s family. There are still a lot of unknowns, and a police investigation is ongoing. 

But the information that is available about Nex’s identity, the bullying they allegedly faced at school, and the effects of recently enacted state laws targeting LGBTQ students have left Oklahoma’s queer and trans communities both angry and in mourning.

Nex’s mother, Sue Benedict, told the Independent that Nex was bullied due to their gender identity starting in the fall, after the state implemented a new law that bars transgender students from using the school bathrooms that align with their gender identities.

Though it’s unclear exactly how Nex identified, Benedict told the Independent that Nex “did not see themselves as male or female. Nex saw themselves right down the middle.” The family continues to use they/them pronouns for Nex in statements and on a fundraising page.

It’s also unclear whether the fight in the bathroom was connected to the bullying Nex told their family about. However, some LGBTQ Oklahomans and members of the community nationwide believe it’s impossible to separate Nex’s death from the surge in legislation and rhetoric targeting the community in the state.

“While various investigations are still pending, the facts currently known by the family, some of which have been released to the public, are troubling at best,” the Benedict family said in a statement released Wednesday by their attorney, Jacob Biby.

The Owasso Police Department said in a statement Wednesday that preliminary information from an autopsy report shows that Nex’s death was not the result of trauma. A toxicology exam is still pending, and an official autopsy will be released later.

“We as an organization and as a community are mourning greatly for this loss,” Asher Aven, the co-director of outreach at the Transgender Advocacy Coalition of Oklahoma, told NBC News. “We need justice for Nex.”

A ‘climate that allows for anti-transness’

Last year, Republicans in the state introduced 35 bills targeting LGBTQ people out of more than 500 introduced nationwide, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Three of those became law: the bathroom law, a prohibition on transition-related care for minors, and a law that bars discrimination against religious entities should they instate anti-LGBTQ policies. In past years, fewer than a dozen such bills were filed, according to the ACLU’s data.

So far this year, state lawmakers have introduced 54 bills targeting LGBTQ people, the highest number in the nation, according to the ACLU.

The state’s school systems have also become increasingly hostile toward LGBTQ students. Ryan Walters, the state superintendent, announced last month that Chaya Raichik, the voice behind the far-right Libs of TikTok social media account, was named an adviser to a state library committee.

“Chaya Raichik and I have developed a strong working relationship to rid schools of liberal, woke values,” Walters said in a statement after Raichik was named to the library committee.

Raichik’s account is known for criticizing LGBTQ teachers for promoting inclusivity in their classrooms, hospitals that provide transition-related care to minors, and schools that enact LGBTQ-inclusive policies. An NBC News investigation found 33 instances when people or institutions that were the subject of posts by Libs of TikTok later reported bomb threats or other violent intimidation.

Raichik has denied any connection to Nex’s death and did not immediately return a request for comment.

In December, a trans teen, identified as J. Doe in legal documents, sued the Oklahoma State Board of Education after Walters filed an emergency rule to prevent trans students from changing the gender listed on their school documents. Outside of school, Doe was able to change his driver’s permit to list him as male.

In June, the state’s education department released a video in which Walters calls trans-inclusive school policies “an assault on truth” and blasted what he called “radical gender theory” that endangers girls.

Hali, a trans girl who is a senior at a high school about a half-hour from Owasso, said Oklahoma’s bathroom law and other education policies make her feel unsafe at school. Hali asked to go by only her first name to protect her privacy.

“Being a trans person in Oklahoma and going to school in Oklahoma, it’s a challenge with going into bathrooms and stuff, because it’s just really scary,” Hali said.

“The rhetoric that has been used by people like Ryan Walters and his appointees has directly created the climate that allows for anti-transness,” Hali said. “It’s only gotten worse over the last two years. Before that, it still existed, of course, but you can see people that would have before been more accepting that now started harassing trans individuals, because it’s what they hear. It’s what they see all around them. So then they bring that over to the schools themselves.”

In a statement shared by Dan Isett, director of communications for the Oklahoma State Department of Education, Walters said, “The safety and security of our students is my top priority as well as the first responsibility of Oklahoma schools.”

“I mourn the loss of our student in Owasso and pray for God’s comfort for the family and the entire Owasso community,” the statement said. “As part of Oklahoma’s comprehensive School-Based Mental Health Implementation, I have committed all available resources from OSDE to assist Owasso Public Schools during this tragedy and await the full results of the ongoing investigation of the incident by law enforcement.”

Isett did not respond to criticisms of Walters’ past statements and policies.

Collective mourning

Hali met Nex at an LGBTQ youth meeting for Youth Services of Tulsa last year. She said she didn’t know them well, but remembers them as kind, loving and quiet.

“It was just a shock,” Hali said of learning about Nex’s death. “I’ve just been mourning them for the past few days.” Hali, who is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, said it was especially heartbreaking to hear that another Indigenous student died given the disproportionate number of missing and murdered Indigenous people, particularly women. Some early reporting on Nex’s death said they were Cherokee, but Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton told Wednesday that Nex’s mother is a member of Choctaw Nation.

Alex DeRoin, a citizen of the Osage Nation and an activist and artist, said remembering Nex and mourning them within the context of their Indigenous heritage is critically important, because the bills targeting LGBTQ people in Oklahoma make the state increasingly unsafe for two-spirit people. The term is used by some Indigenous people to mean having the spirit of both a man and a woman, and can be used as an umbrella term to describe someone’s gender identity and their sexuality.

“Overall, it made me scared,” said DeRoin, who uses he and they pronouns and identifies as me-xo-ge, an Osage term similar to two-spirit. “As a Two-Spirit person in Oklahoma, where these bills are drastically increasing and becoming more hostile towards somebody like myself, it just makes it a lot more apparent that now the state is becoming less and less safe for somebody like me, which also means that the state is becoming genocidal of Indigenous culture, because people like myself and Nex are now being targeted for embracing our ancestral memory.”

The country’s largest LGBTQ rights organizations, including the Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal and the ACLU, have also released statements about Nex’s death, and thousands have created memorial posts across social media.

Lance Preston, the founder and executive director of Rainbow Youth Project, an LGBTQ mental health and suicide prevention organization, said Nex’s death has had a powerful effect on Oklahoma’s queer and trans community, particularly young people.

The organization runs a hotline and chat for LGBTQ people in crisis, and averages about 87 incoming contacts per week from people who self-report as being from Oklahoma. Between Feb. 16, just after national reporting on Nex’s death, and Feb. 20, the group received 349 contacts — more than three times the weekly average.

“And not only the Oklahoma calls increase, but now we’re seeing a very large report nationwide of kids who are seeing this incident and saying, ‘OK, I’m being bullied at school, is this what it’s going to lead to?’ So there’s a fear there,” Preston said. He added that in the last few days, the organization has received more calls from parents who are worried. They ask how they can support their kid and how they can enforce anti-bullying policies in their area.

He said the increase in calls isn’t necessarily unique to Nex’s death. Anytime an elected official makes a negative comment about LGBTQ people, he said calls increase in that area and sometimes nationally. He said when the group first started its hotline two years ago, the top reasons for crisis calls were family rejection or a fear of coming out.

“Over the past six to eight months, it’s changed and it’s now political rhetoric,” Preston said. “‘My government hates me. My school doesn’t want me to exist. My school has a bathroom policy too and I’m scared.’ And we’re seeing a lot of that right now. And this incident has really just kind of intensified that.”

Of the 349 crisis contacts from youth and adults between Feb. 16 and Feb. 20, Rainbow Youth Project found 69% of them mentioned the Owasso incident as one of the reasons for their distress, 85% of them reported being bullied at school and/or across social media platforms, and 79% reported fear of physical assault. Thirty-two contacts identified as students at Owasso High School, while 14 identified as parents of students who attend Owasso High School.  

Aven, of the Transgender Advocacy Coalition of Oklahoma, said the group is holding vigils across the state over the next three days.

Preston said Rainbow Youth Project also has staff in Oklahoma City to meet with local advocates and mental health professionals to develop a rapid response team to support people affected by Nex’s death and the suicide of a teen in Mustang, Oklahoma, earlier this month.

“These kids are scared, so we also need to add a positive uplifting part of that to make them not feel like they’re alone,” Preston said. “Many of them are saying they don’t even want to go back to school, so that fear is real and we have to do whatever we can to reassure them.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit for additional resources.

If you are an LGBTQ young person in crisis, feeling suicidal or in need of a safe and judgment-free place to talk, call the TrevorLifeline now at 1-866-488-7386 or the Rainbow Youth Project at 1-317-643-4888.