Nex Benedict, the nonbinary teen who died in Oklahoma, was reportedly bullied at school. Advocates say anti-LGBTQ laws, rhetoric perpetuate a 'cycle of hate.'

Many questions still remain unanswered about the circumstances surrounding the death of Nex Benedict, the 16-year-old nonbinary student in a Tulsa, Okla., suburb, who died earlier this month after being involved in a fight in a high school bathroom.

Though police have said they do not believe the teenager died as a result of injuries from a fight, the incident has drawn renewed attention to a growing trend of anti-LGBTQ+ violence, restrictive policies and antagonistic rhetoric that has caused many trans and nonbinary children to say they feel unsafe at school.

What happened

On Feb. 7, Nex Benedict, a sophomore at Owasso High School in Owasso, Okla., was involved in a fight with a group of students in the girls' restroom. According to a statement from Owasso Public Schools, the teens were in the bathroom for less than two minutes before another group of students and a staff member broke up the fight.

Both the Owasso Police Department and the school district said in separate statements that the students involved in the fight "walked under their own power to the assistant principal's office and nurse's office" to tell their version of what happened and to be physically evaluated by a school nurse.

The school called Sue Benedict, Nex's grandmother and legal guardian, who was told that Nex would be suspended for two weeks. Sue Benedict told the Independent that three girls had attacked her child and that Nex was "badly beaten with bruises over their face and eyes, and with scratches on the back of their head."

Sue Benedict said that Nex had a “sore head” that night and the next afternoon, Nex collapsed in the living room. Nex was taken to the emergency room where Nex was declared dead.

Part of a ‘culture of hate’

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters said in a statement that he was mourning the loss of Nex's death and that safety and security for students were his top priority. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt called Nex's death a "tragedy" and called for bullies to be held accountable in a Thursday statement.

But LGBTQ+ advocacy groups have described Nex’s death as part of a “culture of hate” that has permeated anti-LGBTQ legislation, the appointment of school officials, and online and offline rhetoric.

“The trusted adults that are in charge of school systems have an obligation to provide a safe learning environment for all children,” Laurel Powell, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, told Yahoo News.

“That is more important, as we continue to see the effects of an unchecked campaign of animus and hate directed at particularly trans and nonbinary people,” she said.

Powell pointed to what she described as "denigrating" comments toward transgender people that have been made by Oklahoma officials like Walters and right-wing activist Chaya Raichik. Raichik is the creator of the controversial social media account "Libs of TikTok," who Walters appointed to the state's library media advisory committee.

“The harmful anti-LGBTQ rhetoric used by policymakers is directly fostering a culture of hate upon LGBTQ+ youth,” Cathy Renna, a spokesperson for the advocacy group National LGBTQ Task Force, said in a statement to Yahoo News. “Our children deserve to thrive and learn freely in our schools.”

In 2023, the Human Rights Campaign and the University of Connecticut released a report from 13,000 LGBTQ+ teens that found that over half of trans and gender-expansive youth, which includes those who identify as nonbinary, felt unsafe at school, particularly in locker rooms and bathrooms.

Over 60% said they had been teased or bullied at school at least once in 2022. From that group, over half were teased for identifying as LGBTQ+. About 20% said they had been physically attacked at school within a month before the survey.

The American Civil Liberties Union says it has tracked 448 bills targeting the LGBTQ+ community in the 2024 legislative session across the U.S. In 2023, Stitt signed an executive order defining an individual's sex as what they are given at birth. Public school students in the state now are required to use bathrooms that match their "biological sex" assigned at birth.

Oklahoma also prohibits gender-affirming care for trans youth. During the signing of his executive order, Stitt declared that the state was "taking a stand against this out-of-control gender ideology." Additionally, 54 anti-LGBTQ+ bills are being considered in Oklahoma's 2024 legislative session.

Unanswered questions

According to Sue Benedict, Nex, who identified as "gender expansive," had been bullied since the beginning of 2023. A statement from Nex's family provided to Yahoo News by the family's lawyers said that the family is left searching for answers from "school, local, state and national officials" to find out "why this happened to hold those responsible to account."

On Wednesday, Owasso police spokesperson Nick Boatman confirmed to Yahoo News that autopsy results from the medical examiner's office indicated that Nex "did not die as a result of trauma" but that they would continue to investigate the fight. Boatman said they were waiting on toxicology results to determine an official cause of death.

Owasso Public Schools did not respond to a request for comment from Yahoo News but said in a statement that they are fully cooperating with police.