The death of Nex Benedict: We still don’t know what happened

A trans teen is dead. The state he lived in made his life as hard as possible.

People at a memorial hold signs that say “Trans youth matter” and “Protect trans kids.”

People gather outside the Stonewall Inn on February 26, 2024, in New York City for a memorial and vigil for Nex Benedict, the Oklahoma teenager who died following a fight in a high school bathroom. Spencer Platt/Getty Images Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

We know a gender-nonconforming teen in an Oklahoma high school is dead. We don’t know much else.

Nex Benedict did not have a long and troubled history with the girls who fought with him the day before his death on February 8. According to his grandmother and adoptive guardian, Nex had drawn bullies and harassment since the start of his sophomore year at Owasso High School West in the fall. These girls, however, barely knew Nex.

Nex was an Indigenous 16-year-old student living in Owasso, Oklahoma. At home, he told his family he was nonbinary and used they/them pronouns; at school, he also used he/him pronouns and told a former partner that he was trans.

He has been described as a whip-smart straight-A student, a talented artist who loved animals, especially his cat, Zeus. He had a supportive boyfriend who Nex helped come out to his parents. He loved playing Minecraft and liked to make up recipes in the kitchen. Friends called him “adventurous” and “fiery.”

After so much harassment, that fiery temperament may have led him to stand up for himself. Less than 24 hours later, Nex Benedict would be dead.

The reaction of the local and state government to his death — including confusing statements by the Owasso Police Department on the cause — has pushed both Nex and Oklahoma into the national conversation. The weeks since Benedict died have been a storm of rampant misinformation, frustrating non-answers from authorities, and distracting side discussions about the political extremists who have glommed onto the debate. The incident has also brought increased scrutiny of Benedict’s school district from the Department of Education, which announced on March 1 that it would be launching an investigation into whether the school violated Benedict’s nondiscrimination rights under Title IX.

It all amounts to a harrowing conversation about this era of aggressive anti-trans sentiment, and the real trans kids who are paying the cost.

Nex Benedict’s death occurred after an incident in a school bathroom

On the afternoon of February 7, Benedict was participating in a school disciplinary program alongside three first-year girls. Though they barely knew each other, Benedict said the girls engaged in mocking him and his friends “because of the way that we dress.” He explained this in an interview with a school resource officer later that day, captured on police bodycam footage that has since been released to the public.

As the girls entered a women’s bathroom — which Benedict was legally required to use thanks to a 2022 Oklahoma law requiring public school students to use the restroom for the sex they were assigned at birth — Benedict threw water at them from a water bottle he was carrying.

In response, Benedict said the three girls started physically attacking him, grabbing his hair. After Benedict shoved one of the assailants into a towel dispenser, “they got my legs out from under me, got me on the ground, and started beating the shit out of me,” he told the officer.

The death of Nex Benedict: We still don’t know what happened1

Nex Benedict GoFundMe

The assault was so violent that Benedict says he “blacked out.” Sue Benedict, Benedict’s grandmother and adoptive parent, later said he was left covered in bruises. Despite Benedict allegedly being knocked unconscious, and despite surveillance video showing him appearing to sway on his feet while walking, no one at Owasso called for medical services or police “per district protocols” — a fact that reportedly left Sue Benedict “furious.” Instead, school administrators suspended Benedict for two weeks. It’s unknown whether the girls received similar punishment; the school’s statement stressed that “any notion that the district has ignored disciplinary action toward those involved is simply untrue.”

The school later released a statement pointing out that all of the parties involved “walked under their own power” to the nurse’s office, where they were examined and cleared by the nurse. The nurse did, however, suggest that Benedict voluntarily undergo a more thorough medical exam.

Later that day, Sue Benedict took him to a hospital and summoned an officer to try to initiate charges of assault against Benedict’s attackers. School resource officer Caleb Thompson discouraged Benedict from pursuing the case, telling him that by throwing the water on the girls, he “essentially started it … it’s a mutual fight.” Sue Benedict then declined to press charges. (The Owasso Police Department did not return a request for comment.)

“I got jumped at school 3 on 1,” Benedict texted a relative later. “[I] had to go to the ER… if I’m still dizzy and nauseous in the morning I might have a concussion.”

The next morning, Sue Benedict placed a call to 911, stating that Benedict had fallen unconscious and appeared to be “posturing,” exhibiting involuntary motions that can indicate brain trauma. Benedict returned to the hospital but was pronounced dead soon after arrival.

From that moment on, questions about what actually happened to Benedict, who he was, and what could or should have been done to protect him only grew louder.

The circumstances of Benedict’s death are as confusing as they are angering

Initially, everyone from family members to media outlets contributed to confusion about the basic facts of Benedict’s life: what his name was, how he identified, which pronouns he used, what his Indigenous heritage was. Several media reports have described Benedict as two-spirit, which is a traditional Indigenous concept that describes a third nonbinary gender; it’s unclear, however, that Benedict identified as two-spirit.

Threats were made against the school; Benedict’s family made a plea against being bullied. And with no medical examiner’s report or toxicology results forthcoming nearly a month later, the biggest source of uncertainty and conflict remains: What actually caused Benedict’s death?

Officials did initiate a formal investigation into Benedict’s death, executing a search warrant at the school on February 9 and collecting written statements from school officials. Despite stating to the Independent that “all charges will be on the table” for Benedict’s assailants once a cause of death was confirmed, the Owasso police released a follow-up statement on February 21 that seemed to strongly insinuate that Benedict’s death was unconnected to the fight.

“While the investigation continues into the altercation,” the report stated, “preliminary information from the medical examiner’s office is that a complete autopsy was performed and indicated that the decedent did not die as a result of trauma … further comments on the cause of death are currently pending until toxicology results and other ancillary testing results are received.”

In an interview with Popular Information, Owasso Police Department Public Information Officer Nick Boatman further clarified that the medical examiner had “emphasized they are waiting for toxicology,” which he took as a “red flag,” and that he was “assuming when I get that [toxicology report] back, something’s going to be there.” The police later clarified that the fight has not been ruled out as a cause of death.

In response to the widely held perception that Benedict was a victim of anti-queer and anti-trans bullying and violence, communities across the country have held vigils for Benedict.

On February 26, a group of Owasso students — estimates ranged from 20 to over 40 — walked out of class to protest the bullying that preceded Benedict’s death. They were joined by community members and students from other schools. Prior to the protest, parents were informed that students who participated in the walkout would be marked absent from classes unless they received written permission from a parent to participate.

Questions linger about how much bullying Benedict endured, and why Owasso High School didn’t show more concern for Benedict after an altercation in which his head was slammed against the floor. In an emailed statement, Jordan Korphage, the director of communications for Owasso Public Schools, told Vox that the district “take[s] reports of bullying very seriously” and that “all reported bullying accusations are investigated by administrators at the school site in which they occur, and are reviewed by the district’s Director of Safety and Security.” Korphage said the school had no knowledge of previous incidents between these students prior to February 7 and added, “To the district’s knowledge, there were no reported bullying incidents by Nex or on Nex’s behalf during the 2023-2024 school year.”

Out of a belief that Benedict endured gender-based discrimination, the Human Rights Campaign filed a complaint against the Owasso school district with the DOE, which subsequently announced on March 1 that it would be investigating the school. In a statement to NBC News, a spokesperson for the school district called the allegation “without merit.”

The investigation points toward the larger national conversation about trans kids — and the bigger question of whether, instead of protecting everyone else from students like Nex Benedict, it’s time to fight to protect kids like Nex from everyone else.

Nex Benedict lived as a trans kid in a state that legally ostracized him

Since 2022, Oklahoma has been at the forefront of a wave of anti-trans legislation aimed at blocking trans people from health care access, forcing transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that don’t align with their identity, criminalizing gender-affirming health care, and preventing trans people from legally identifying as their correct gender.

A 2023 analysis by a state watchdog group found that state legislators had “introduced 40 bills limiting LGBTQ Oklahomans’ healthcare access, inclusion in schools and options for self-expression this legislative session.” This year, that number is even higher: a staggering 54 bills — the highest in the country.

The ostensible goal of these laws is to resist what Oklahoma education superintendent Ryan Walters has called “radical gender theory.” But the effect is undoubtedly the cultural and literal erasure of trans people.

The double standard this environment creates can be both bizarre and hard to fathom in its cruelty. In June 2023, the Oklahoma Department of Education, under Walters, released a YouTube video titled “Protecting Students from Leftist Social Experiments by Upholding the Law.”

The video’s subject — as told through the emotionally incendiary use of edited news footage, interviews, and stock footage of a scared-looking little girl — is the alleged assault of a cis girl by a trans girl, who was misgendered throughout the video. The video portrayed the trans girl as a violent predatory male who needed to be kept out of girls’ bathrooms for the safety of cisgender girls.

So far, Walters has said nothing about protecting trans children from violence directed at them by cisgender teens. Instead, though calling Benedict’s death a tragedy, he told ABC he wants “the focus to be on the basics and education,” insisting he “will not play woke gender games, [and] will not back down to a woke mob.” (Walters’ office did not respond to a request for comment.)

Walters’s anti-trans policies and even more anti-trans rhetoric have been the focus of ongoing backlash. On February 28, hundreds of state and national activist groups called for his resignation, arguing he had “foster[ed] a culture of violence and hate against the 2SLGBTQI+ community in Oklahoma schools.”

In his most controversial move, Walters appointed anti-trans MAGA influencer Chaya Raichik to serve on a media advisory committee for the Oklahoma school library system; Raichik is the creator behind the anti-LGBTQ Libs of TikTok social media accounts. (Raichik is not an Oklahoma resident and told the Washington Post she has only visited the state once.)

Prior to this appointment, Raichik used her notorious social media presence to target teachers at various Oklahoma schools, accusing them of spreading a “woke” liberal agenda, usually regarding support for queer and trans teens.

These included one of Benedict’s former teachers, Tyler Wrynn. After Wrynn posted a video message of support for queer and genderqueer students to his TikTok page in 2022, Raichik amplified it and started a viral pile-on. Wrynn subsequently resigned — but not before receiving death threats and accusations of “grooming” children.

Benedict, who had been one of Wrynn’s students, was reportedly “very angry” about Raichik’s targeting of his teacher. (Wrynn spoke at a February 25 vigil for Nex.)

Following Benedict’s death, some local officials were outraged at Raichik for her role in stoking anti-trans violence in their community. For her part, Raichik told the Washington Post that Benedict’s death was “horrible,” but also repeatedly misgendered him, described gender variance as “a mental illness,” and spoke of wanting to “eradicate gender ideology from public life.” (Raichik did not respond to a request for comment.)

This rhetoric, which fundamentally questions the right of trans people to exist, has arguably contributed to a deeply toxic political environment not just in Oklahoma but across the country — one in which anti-LGBTQ bigotry is increasingly becoming accepted policy. While some Republican lawmakers might express sympathy toward victims like Benedict, their party’s political machine is actively engaged, both at a national and state-by-state level, in taking away even the most basic protections for queer and trans kids.

State Sen. Tom Woods admitted as much during a February 23 town forum, when he took time to respond to Benedict’s death in the worst way — by repeatedly referring to Benedict and other LGBTQ people as “filth.”

“We are a Republican state — supermajority — in the House and Senate. I represent a constituency that doesn’t want that filth in Oklahoma,” Woods said.

“When I heard the news of Nex Benedict … I found the news predictable and inevitable,” former Oklahoma teacher Tyger Songbird wrote for news magazine LGBTQNation. “The culture and climate that Republicans have fomented, where politicians days after Nex’s passing call LGBTQ+ people filth, helped precipitate such a tragedy.” Songbird resigned his position in 2022 after realizing “that hate was going to win.”

“This is all despite evidence showing that trans teen suicide risk dramatically reduces with the freedom to transition and live in their gender identity,” he wrote. “This all is happening despite evidence showing that just having one supportive teacher and educator reduces suicide attempts by LGBTQ+ teens by 40%.” The fact that Benedict was also one of North America’s vulnerable Indigenous students meant that his victimology was even more complicated.

In other words, Oklahoma’s dismantling of legal protections for trans students and their allies is actively putting them at risk. We still don’t know what killed Nex Benedict — but whatever it was, there’s no question that life was fraught for Nex and other students like him. When you enact “measures designed to crack down on the lives and well-being of trans kids,” as my former colleague Emily St. James wrote in 2022, “you create an environment where trans kids suffer … If these measures are carried out, a lot of trans people will needlessly die.”

Today, the loss is this: a vibrant teen whom friends and family described as funny, tough, and endlessly kind. If only being human were enough to protect a vulnerable child from a system that’s determined to erase them.

“More than anything, I wish he would walk back into class and everything would be normal again,” one Owasso student said at Nex’s vigil. “Even though I’ve watched them be buried, I look for them wherever I go.”


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