None of Us Should Have to Be as Brave as Nex Benedict, the Nonbinary Teen Who Died

Fitness

EDMONTON, CANADA - FEBRUARY 03, 2024:Activists hold placards as hundreds of activists, allies, and members of the transgender community gather at Dr. Wilbert McIntyre Park in Old Strathcona, protesting Premier Danielle Smith's proposed LGBTQ2S+ legislation and opposing legislation affecting transgender and non-binary youth, on February 03, 2024, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.Protests ignited after Premier Smith's recent announcement to restrict vital procedures for transgender youth, sparked by a social media video mandating parental notification and consent. (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

I wish I could say I was surprised. Shocked, hurt, appalled, disgusted. I wish I could feel furious, seething, incandescent with rage, irate. All of those would be appropriate responses — or maybe not. Maybe there is no appropriate response to the death of a child. Maybe I just want to be able to communicate the true depth of the grief that is felt by the trans community at the loss of Nex Benedict, who died on Feb. 8, a day after a fight at their Oklahoma school.

Maybe I want to be able to explain just how much it hurts to hear news of a child being beaten senseless simply for standing up for themselves, what the shape and texture of that feeling really is, how it sticks between the ribs of every trans person, how it cannot be metabolized, how it sits and rots within us for a lifetime. How to name the weight of the acceptance that violence remains an immutable part of the trans experience. I wish I had the luxury of horror.

“Nex’s death illustrates the kind of bullying and hatred these laws make space for.”

As Benedict’s guardian and grandmother, Sue Benedict, told The Independent, 16-year-old Nex had been bullied at school for at least a year, ever since the Oklahoma bathroom law that requires public-school students to use the bathroom that corresponds with the gender on their birth certificate had been signed into law. Sue said she had urged them to “be strong and look the other way,” although she admits that she “didn’t know how bad it had gotten.” In text messages to a family member obtained by FOX23, Nex described getting “jumped” at school by three girls who had been bullying him and his friends: “I got tired of it so I poured some water on them and all 3 came after me,” they wrote. Nex was suspended for their role in the fight, according to their grandmother. They were also the only participant who had to go to the hospital for the injuries they sustained, and the only participant who dropped dead the next day.

The rise of anti-trans legislation in the past four years has been record-breaking, and the majority of the laws target trans children specifically. Sports participation and bathroom bills seem innocuous — who cares if some trans kid in Nebraska can’t play girls soccer? What does it matter where that same kid goes to the bathroom? But the reality is much more sinister. Nex’s death illustrates the kind of bullying and hatred these laws make space for. Nicole McAfee, the executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, told The New York Times that bathroom bills like the one passed in Oklahoma can encourage students themselves to police bathrooms. Kids who don’t present as their natal gender are questioned, and “there is a sense of, ‘Do you belong in here?'”

For what it’s worth, Nex identified as nonbinary and was complying with the law by using the women’s bathroom. They belonged “in there,” but that didn’t count for very much in the end.

In 2024, there have already been 468 anti-trans bills introduced across the country, according to the Trans Legislations Tracker. These cover everything from gender-affirming care to bathroom usage to sports teams to the use of pronouns in the workplace. Oklahoma is the most active state in the country in this category, with 59 bills introduced this year alone. With numbers like this, I shudder to think how many more Nex Benedicts there could be. In his push to pass the bathroom bill back in 2022, Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters said “it puts our girls in jeopardy.” The idea that teenage girls need to be protected from trans people isn’t new — that all trans people are de facto pedophiles is one of the oldest pillars of transphobia —- though that assertion used to be reserved for adults. Clearly, the safety of children like Nex is not a concern for Walters or others like him.

Every trans adult has been a trans child whether they were out or not — I was Nex once. Kicked out of the girls’ locker room by other girls because I was too butch, asked to leave health class because my queer presence made other kids uncomfortable, told again and again and again to turn the other cheek when I was spat on, insulted, abused. This was 20 years ago, before anyone had really heard of Chaz Bono or Caitlyn Jenner, when the idea of asking for pronouns would have been absurd. I’m not asking for sympathy here; I had it relatively easy. I am saying that the experience of being bullied for your identity is nearly ubiquitous in the trans community. I am saying that it should not be that way.

As a trans adult, my truest ambition has been to make the world a little safer for other trans people. I’m not the only person in my community with this ambition. So many of us feel like ambassadors, hoping that if we answer enough questions, explain clearly, demonstrate our humanity, cis people will understand that no trans adult or child is a threat to anyone based solely on their transness. All of us hope to make a gentler world — not just for our teenage selves, but for kids like Nex. All of us hope that for every cis person we explain ourselves to, we save a trans person violence and hatred. But it doesn’t work, and Nex’s death shows us clearly that it never will.

I said earlier that I was Nex Benedict once, but that isn’t entirely true. I didn’t come out until adulthood. The truth is, I wasn’t as brave as Nex Benedict.

Few of us are.

None of us should have to be.

Rest in power, Nex.

Image Source: NurPhoto via Getty Images / Artur Widak

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