Society / February 22, 2024

The War on Transgender Kids Took the Life of Nex Benedict

America eats its young through legislation that valorizes bullying.

Dave Zirin
trans rights demonstration

Trans rights are human rights.

(Erik McGregor / LightRocket via Getty Images)

Nex Benedict was many things: the 16-year-old child of Sue and Walter Benedict, a friend to the bullied, a proud part of the Choctaw Nation, and transgender. To the state of Oklahoma, they were less than human, and their life was cheap.

The basics of the story are ugly, but we cannot look away, because this is what we have become: a country that wages a one-sided legislative war against trans kids. We are a country where Benedict was bullied for being nonbinary. We are a country where on February 7, Benedict was beaten with a trans friend in a bathroom, and the adult on bathroom duty did nothing for two minutes before stepping in. We are a country where the school administrators, instead of calling an ambulance or the police as Sue Benedict wanted, was sent home with a two-week suspension for “fighting.” Sue took Nex Benedict to the hospital with a badly bruised and scratched face, the back of their head hurt from hitting the bathroom floor, but the hospital quickly discharged them. The next morning, they collapsed and died.

But school officials aren’t the only people who failed Benedict. “Libs of TikTok” fascist and far-right social media influencer Chaya Raichik hounded a beloved teacher who supported Benedict at Owasso High School out of his job through her heavily edited viral videos. The superintendent of public schools Ryan Walters appointed Raichik, a former New York real estate agent, to Oklahoma’s library advisory committee. Walters has refused to comment on the beating death of one of his students, as if Benedict did not exist. (Since Benedict’s death, he has found time to post worshipful thoughts about Donald Trump.)

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Walters and Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt have used their state powers to torment children like Benedict out of public life. They passed laws making it so they couldn’t play sports, receive the medical care they need, or even choose their bathroom. The bullying, according to Sue Benedict, escalated at the beginning of the 2023 school year, just months after Stitt signed a bill requiring public school students to use bathrooms that matched the sex listed on their birth certificates.

Now, the Owasso police are saying, two weeks after the fact and under a widening national glare, that the head trauma resulting from the “fight” did not in fact lead to the 16-year-old’s death. Given the lies that officials routinely parrot about transgender kids in Oklahoma, there is no reason to believe this. We should demand a federal investigation into how the denial of Benedict’s civil rights led to their death.

I learned of Max Nagle when, as a trans basketball player at Hollins University, he took a knee during the national anthem in solidarity with those fighting for racial equity and justice. I interviewed him for my book The Kaepernick Effect, and after Benedict was killed, I reached back out to him, now at the Center for Sport Leadership at VCU.

Nagle told me: “This has been really hard to look at because that could’ve been me in high school if I transitioned earlier. It could also be somebody I know. It could be somebody that my sister, who is a high school teacher, has as a student. And I know for her, as a gay teacher, it also hits really close. But what’s interesting about it is the fact that it happened in a bathroom, where supposedly according to the right, trans people are seeking to cause others harm. And for me what it really comes back to is that there’s so much propaganda out there about us. There’s so much misunderstanding, and the politicians making all these anti-trans laws in areas not just in sports but in all parts of our lives really, they just don’t know. We probably seem very threatening to them, because gender is the one thing that we are told is immutable, but you really can change it and the simplest way to explain somebody who’s nonbinary is that they’re just a person.”

The funk singer George Clinton said in 1972 that “America eats its young,” and he has been proven right time and again. It is too generous to say that this country does nothing as kids are gunned down in classrooms, thousands of children are being slaughtered in Gaza, and young teens like Benedict are being beaten to death. It’s too generous, because that makes the US sound impotent or even mournful at the state of this world. The facts are far uglier.

We make it easy to buy automatic weapons and to shoot children in their classrooms. We make it easy for Israel to perpetrate their crimes against children, sending them billions in weaponry and defending them against the world at the United Nations. We pass laws that valorize bullying nonbinary kids and send the unmistakable message that transgender life is not worth protecting. It’s unbearable.

Still, we must fight. We fight so the next generation can live. We fight so the next generation gets its chance to show us a better way. As Sue Benedict said, “Nex had a light in them that was so big, they had so many dreams. I want their light to keep shining for everyone. That light was so big and bright and beautiful, and I want everyone to remember Nex that way.”

On Monday there will be a vigil for Benedict at Stonewall in New York City. Vigils are planned in Oklahoma as well. Demonstrations like these need to span the country to honor Benedict’s life and to confront those who would celebrate their death. We should have thrown our arms around Benedict. Instead, their school and their government folded their arms and watched them die.

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Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin is the sports editor at The Nation. He is the author of 11 books on the politics of sports. He is also the coproducer and writer of the new documentary Behind the Shield: The Power and Politics of the NFL.

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