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On Nex Benedict, invisible students, Easter and Trans Day of Visibility

Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary student from Owasso, Okla., died Feb. 7. The cause of death remains undetermined. While tragic that a teen died, many fail to see the significance of what occurred.

The focus of numerous reports centers on determining who is responsible for the untimely death of this adolescent student. Owasso Public Schools issued a statement on Feb. 20 explaining that speculation and misinformation have intensified, and while some information cannot be disclosed due to privacy laws, the district felt it necessary to provide clarity on their commitment to student safety and security. Expressing the death of Benedict as devastating on everyone in the community and vowing their devotion to provide a safe environment where everyone feels heard and supported, the district issued the following details about events surrounding the teen’s death:

  • On the afternoon of Wednesday, Feb. 7, a physical altercation occurred in a restroom at the Owasso High School West Campus.
  • Students were in the restroom for less than two minutes and the physical altercation was broken up by other students who were present in the restroom at the time, along with a staff member who was supervising outside the restroom.
  • Once the altercation was broken up, all students involved in the altercation walked under their own power to the assistant principal’s office and nurse’s office. District administrators began taking statements from the students present in the restroom and began contacting parents/guardians of the students involved in the physical altercation.
  • Following district protocols, each of the students involved in the altercation was given a health assessment by a district registered nurse. Per district protocols, students needing further support are transported to a medical facility either by ambulance or by a parent/guardian, depending on the severity of the injuries and preference of the parent/guardian.
  • While it was determined that ambulance service was not required, out of an abundance of caution, it was recommended to one parent that their student visit a medical facility for further examination.

They also gave the following clarification of the school district’s procedures:

  • Per district protocols, the parents/guardians of students involved in a physical altercation are notified and informed of the option to file a police report should they choose. Should they choose to file a police report, school resource officers are made available to the parents/guardians either at that time or they can schedule an appointment, if they choose, at a later date. These practices were followed during this incident.
  • Physical altercations between students are unacceptable. Any student(s) engaging in such action, jeopardizing the safety of others, will receive disciplinary consequences. These consequences can include out-of-school suspension for [the] first offense. Due to federal privacy laws, we are unable to disclose the exact nature of disciplinary action taken against any student. That information can only be given to the parents/guardians of the student being disciplined. Any notion that the district has ignored disciplinary action toward those involved is simply untrue.
  • Additional counseling services were provided to students at the high school on Friday, Feb. 9, and continue to be available for all students and staff.

The local police department said in a statement Feb. 20 that on the afternoon of the altercation at the school, the Owasso school resource officer responded to a summons at Bailey Medical Center where Nex Benedict was being examined. The officer interviewed Nex and their guardian and later followed up with them the next day.

On the following afternoon, Feb. 8, Owasso Fire Department medics were contacted regarding a medical emergency and transported Nex Benedict to St. Francis Pediatric Emergency Room, where the teen later died. A complete autopsy was performed, and according to authorities, Nex Benedict “did not die as a result of trauma.” The results of the toxicology reports and additional testing remain pending.  (For more information about the events of Benedict’s death, please visit Mark Wingfield’s excellent report: “Oklahoma senator says of LGBTQ kids, ‘We don’t want that filth in our state’”)

So much of the conversation regarding Nex Benedict’s death is regarding who is responsible. Are the students who bullied Nex in the bathroom culpable? Are the parents of those students liable for their children’s actions? Did the school do enough to try to prevent this altercation from happening? Should administrators have done more after the event to ensure the students were safe? Is the guardian of Nex negligent of ensuring her child’s wellness and care after going home? Did Nex instigate the fight in the bathroom or self-harm the following day? Are state legislators egregious for their anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and laws that limit access to medical care and are targeted at LGBTQ teens?

Hopefully, these questions will be answered by a thorough investigation and all who are responsible will be brought to justice for this tragic death of a beautiful teen, who had a whole life ahead. However, if we are not careful, we can look for a scapegoat for the death of Nex Benedict at the expense of the bigger issue. Discovering the cause of death for Nex Benedict is essential to bring justice to what happened. However, let’s not miss the forest for the trees. This is not an isolated incident.

LGBTQ students are being harassed and assaulted all across this country purely because of their gender identification or sexual orientation. This is further evidenced by the data of organizations, such as the Human Rights Campaign, who vow to “continue to provide resources for LGBTQ students and educators across the country and … network (with) youth-serving professionals to be sure they have the resources and tools they need.”

The Trevor Project, a leading nonprofit organization that focuses on suicide prevention efforts among LGBTQ youth, offers a toll-free phone, text and chat hotline for anyone in despair. According to their findings and extensive research, negative treatment by others (such as bullying) is a consistent risk factor for youth suicide, and LGBTQ youth are bullied at much greater rates than straight, cisgender students.

In October 2021, The Trevor Project issued an extensive statistical document titled, The Trevor Project Research Brief: Bullying and Suicide Risk among LGBTQ Youth. According to the compiled data, more than half of LGBTQ students enrolled in middle or high school (52%) had experienced in-person (33%) and/or electronic (42%) bullying in the previous year.  Those bullied were three times more likely to attempt suicide. Conversely, students who attend schools they believe are LGBTQ-affirming were 30% less likely to be bullied.

Because of the magnitude and severity of at-risk LGBTQ students, like Nex Benedict, please consider these suggestions for your home, church and community:


Check your own bias

Sometimes the hardest person for us to see bias in is ourselves. No one is completely impartial; we all tend to show greater concern for those who matter most to us. However, if we do not build a broad, intentionally and inclusively diverse group of people around us, we can overlook and minimize the needs of people who are not like us.

This leads us to have higher expectations for the inclusion and care of people like us and less acceptance or concern for those who are different than us. As a white, straight, cisgender, educated, able-bodied, moderately affluent male, I have tremendous privilege.  I can either seek to protect and preserve the benefits that come to me because of my status or I can seek to share with others who do not experience the same benefits that I do.

We choose what to do with our biases.


Consider queer theology with openness

Today, there are many resources available to study Scripture and a wide array of theological interpretations. As with our biases, we tend to only read and consider our current understanding of God, the Bible and how to live as followers of Jesus. However, unlike 50 years ago, there is a wealth of material available to us that challenges our current viewpoints.

Avoiding theological positions that differ than our own leaves us to only hunker down into our current worldview, stifling our growth. If you have not considered queer-affirming perspectives on the Bible and the Christian lifestyle, I would encourage you to purchase and read a copy of well-trained biblical scholars (such as David Gushee, Colby Martin and Matthew Vines), who hold to a high view of Scripture while also affirming people in the LGBTQ community. Then, decide for yourself.


Choose empathy

Regardless of your viewpoint on the morality of the LGBTQ community, exhibiting the fruitfulness of the Spirit necessitates that we strive to love others with gentleness and kindness. Empathy places ourselves in the circumstances of others and asks us to consider how we want to be treated. It shifts our focus from bias and privilege to a place of understanding and compassion.

We are not being very loving when we choose to “love the sinner and hate the sin,” because our first response is to see someone through the eyes of the behaviors we find unacceptable. Rather, Jesus calls us to love with empathy.  Jesus joined humanity on earth and even died as a human, fully relating to our struggles. We should follow Jesus’ example.


Build relationships

One of the most meaningful ways for us to shift away from bias and out of our privilege is by building relationships with people who are different than us. By getting to actually know people of other races, financial conditions and gender identities, I have bonded in deep friendships with them.


I see myself as one of them rather than separate from them. I create a personal connection as I listen to their stories, relate to their challenges and grow in a shared devotion with them.

To quote from the classic ending to Casablanca, “This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” and I am a better human because of my diverse friends.


Become an ally

These are critical days for us to stand in solidarity with those who are marginalized in our society. We must stand up against the “bullies” in every arena.

Becoming an ally is not just saying you love a group of people; it means walking beside them in life, experiencing a small taste of the hatred spewed at them, and letting them know you are there in the gravest of times. Allies prioritize the wellness of others who are different than them and seek to stand up for the rights of all people.

Your life will be enriched by getting involved in local organizations that support the LGBTQ community and other marginalized groups.


Advocate for change

Seek to elect officials at every level who demonstrate a humble commitment to those who are shunned and pushed aside. Write your legislators. Ask your church leaders to speak about and promote the causes of those who experience injustice and hate crimes. Volunteer your time and resources to organizations in your community that support the cause of the vulnerable. Get involved and speak up.

Your voice may not single-handedly change legislation or world affairs, but it will change the world of those for whom you advocate.


Create safe spaces

Too many families and churches say they are a loving and welcoming community for others and cannot understand why minority groups do not participate and attend their functions, events and services. There are many causes for this separation, but one of the most common is that the living room, the school and the sanctuary are not safe for them.

Creating a safe place means validating who someone is, using their desired name and pronouns, celebrating their inherent worth and treating them as equals. It means avoiding judgmental statements, not trying to change them, apologizing when saying or doing something hurtful, and treating others with the human dignity that we all deserve.


Resurrection hope

March 31 is Easter. Easter is a day when we celebrate newness of life. As followers of Christ, we are grateful for Jesus’ resurrection and the impending hope of eternal life. March 31 also is Trans Day of Visibility, a day of saying to trans and nonbinary teens that they are seen, valued and significant.

What might it communicate to people like Nex Benedict if we celebrated these two holidays together?

Jesus regularly looked for the unseen, the vulnerable and the lonely. He saw them, valued them and celebrated them. If we come out of the tomb of our religious sanctuaries, we might see they are far from a sanctum for many.

Jesus did not remain in the tomb; Jesus was discovered in the garden. Apart from the garden, his new life would only have been a speculation, but the presence of Jesus outside the tomb is what validates the resurrection. Jesus was seen, valued and known.

May the scales fall from our eyes. May we see the beautiful array of the diversity of the human race by exiting the tomb and entering the garden. It is here that we see and are seen by the Master; it is here that we are seen and can see each other. Perhaps we will actually see Jesus in all his creation if we walk out of the darkness and into the light.

Father, forgive us for we do not know what we do. Rest in peace, Nex Benedict.


Patrick Wilson has served as a pastor for 25 years in Dallas and Austin, Texas, and most recently in in Rolla, Mo., where he now leads a new community of faith, CrossRoads. He is a graduate of Baylor University, earned two master’s degrees at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a doctor of ministry degree from Logsdon Seminary.