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Death of Oklahoma teen Nex Benedict hits close to home for New Jersey therapist

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Death of Oklahoma teen Nex Benedict hits close to home for New Jersey therapist

Feb 22, 2024 | 3:00 pm ET
By Laura Hoge
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Death of Oklahoma teen Nex Benedict hits close to home for New Jersey therapist
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Nex Benedict's death is a manifestation of a larger issue that involves hostile rhetoric, misinformation about gender-diverse youth, and an anti-LGBTQ culture, a licensed clinical social worker writes.

The life of Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary student from Oklahoma, was brutally cut short after an altercation in a bathroom at Owasso High School.

Their untimely death should prompt a critical dialogue about the circumstances leading to such a horrifying incident. And we should not fool ourselves by thinking New Jersey is immune to the dangers that transgender and nonbinary youth face in schools and public spaces nationwide.

As many grapple with the aftermath of this terrifying hate crime, we all — Oklahoma to New Jersey to Florida — must address the systemic issues that contribute to the vulnerability of marginalized students, in particular transgender, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming youth.

The New Jersey Safe Schools Coalition with Columbia High School Spectrum Club will hold a candlelight vigil in Nex’s memory on Saturday, Feb. 24, at 6 p.m. at Maplewood Town Hall, 574 Valley St.

In my role as a gender specialist and trauma therapist, addressing the aftermath of violent incidents such as these demands a process of “zooming out” from the hate crime itself and examining the unsettling realities of what other journalists have already referred to as stochastic terrorism, a term used to describe the use of mass communication, such as social media or online platforms, to incite or inspire individuals to carry out acts of terrorism without directly organizing, directing, or participating in the violent acts themselves.

The term “stochastic terrorism” carries significant weight, and grasping its meaning requires clarifying its key component: implicit communication. Implicit communication operates beneath the surface of explicit words and actions. It plays a significant role in shaping perceptions, beliefs, and behaviors while at the same time maintaining “plausible deniability.” We all have people in our lives whose attitudes toward groups of people are widely known, even if they aren’t explicitly spoken and would likely be denied. We all have felt implicit messages from our bosses, spiritual leaders, teachers, or politicians, reminding us of what is and is not acceptable in our work, faith practice, classrooms, and communities.

As we process the death of Nex Benedict, we must look at the culture in which they were living, one with a history of hostile discourse toward transgender people and influenced by social media outlets that are known purveyors of anti-trans sentiments. In the aftermath of Nex’s death, it is unsurprising that they are being misgendered and deadnamed in the community where they lived. Even amid tributes to their life, implicit messages are being sent that offer absolution to those who might be harboring guilt about their participation in a culture that could have caused something so horrific and a clear message that transgender and gender-diverse youth have no place in Owasso High, alive or dead.

While many of us would like to believe that our communities are immune to this type of violence, it is naive to think that similar acts of hate would never happen in our own schools. Anti-trans rhetoric is ubiquitous in New Jersey. It can easily be found in our Statehouse, family gatherings, and most recently in our school board meetings, where attitudes similar to the ones in Owasso were amplified in heated debates over school policy 5756 — a policy that supports transgender and nonbinary students seeking to be referred to by a different name or pronoun, and which has sparked discussions about whether schools should be obligated to inform parents of these changes.

While journalists share information about the role of Libs of TikTok and its influence on the community of Owasso, New Jersey residents need to understand that we have similar influences acting in our own backyard, like the Center for Garden State Families, Moms for Liberty, Parents Defending Education, and others, with many of them misleading the public with deceptive and legitimate sounding names while spouting anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, calling for book bans, and/or forced outing of gender diverse students. These groups explicitly advocate for parental rights and child safety, while concurrently employing implicit messaging that creates an atmosphere where transgender youth, as well as their supporters, are made to feel unsafe.

Implicit intolerance is pervasive and, if it continues to proliferate without challenge, will erode the protections that this state currently offers. To counteract this, allies must remain vigilant and take explicit actions that endorse and celebrate gender-diverse experiences within our communities. This could include speaking out in favor of trans-affirmative policies at school board meetings, spreading trans-affirming messages and stories online, teaching cisgender children about gender diversity and how to be an upstander in their friend circles, and/or advocating for trans-affirming rights and recognition in government. Neglecting to engage in these actions sends its own implicit message, and tacitly sanctions the proliferation of harmful attitudes and biases.

I believe that residents in New Jersey are uniquely positioned to disrupt the transphobia that exists here. We are backed by our brand: a progressive state with laws that support inclusion. Sharing accurate information about gender diversity, as well as the experiences and challenges that transgender and nonbinary students face, can demystify misconceptions and foster life-saving empathy and understanding.

We must acknowledge that Nex’s death did not exist in a vacuum and is not an isolated incident. Their death is a manifestation of a larger issue that involves hostile rhetoric, a targeted misinformation campaign against transgender and gender-diverse youth, and a culture that permits anti-LGBTQ toxicity to proliferate.

Nex’s death is a poignant reminder of the landscape in which gender-diverse children are asked to live and grow, and which, in the case of Nex, can be deadly.