Remembering Nex Benedict: What the death of a non-binary teenager means to CWRU community

Vigil held at CWRU to commemorate Benedict’s life
Remembering Nex Benedict: What the death of a non-binary teenager means to CWRU community

Trigger Warning: Mentions of suicide 

The death of Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old non-binary teenager, has captured national attention and fear, including at Case Western Reserve University, where a vigil was held by the LGBT Center on March 22.

On Feb. 8, Benedict, a sophomore from Owasso, Oklahoma, passed away from suicide by a drug overdose according to autopsy reports. On Feb. 7, Benedict visited the hospital after physical altercations were inflicted upon them by three students at Owasso High School.

On March 21, Stephen Kunzweiler, Tulsa County’s district attorney, ruled that no charges would be issued for Benedict’s death, adding that suicide-related notes written by Benedict “[did] not make any reference to the earlier fight or difficulties at school … [but] the parents indicated that Benedict reported being picked upon for various reasons while at school.” Despite the outcome of the case, Benedict’s story has gained national attention and continues to affect students and faculty, including those at CWRU.

H. Michael Schwartz, a CWRU instructor and PhD student in organizational behavior who studies transgender experiences and organizations, noted how the story of Benedict was incredibly personal for them. They said, “The reason that the altercation happened with Nex was because these other people were making fun of how Nex was laughing … and I was stuck in my own high school, middle school experiences and people doing similar [things] where I wasn’t even aware of my own gender at that point.”

“We didn’t really have the words and contexts for [what] non-binary meant or what being outside of it meant. But all of the bullying was centered around it, most of it. [The incident] put me right back in that space, wondering: how are we actually protecting our children?” they commented regarding their childhood experience they had while they were Benedict’s age. “While microaggressions themselves are small, their impact is cumulative and it lasts … The type of bullying that Nex experienced, especially over time, is as traumatic as being shell-shocked in a war.”

The vigil was scheduled to be held at KSL Oval on March 22 from 5-6 p.m. However, due to the cold weather, the vigil was moved from KSL Oval into the LGBT Center’s Tinkham Veale University Center office, with about 15 students in attendance. It was a mostly silent affair, where students lit up small LED tea candles in jars while engaging in small side conversations. Student A, a graduate student who wished to remain anonymous, said, “I feel like there’s not enough space for queer grievances. For queer individuals … we’re united by the concept of the outsider, so we don’t have that kind of support and this is what leads to such little protests.”

Attendee Isaac, a second-year sociology student who wished to have his last name withheld, mentioned how Benedict’s story is not the first one for the LGBTQIA+ community. He said, “As a trans person, it’s not an entirely new story. We’re sort of always dealing with deaths in the community. I think what really struck me about this was just how young Nex was.” Highlighting how Benedict’s death has impacted him and his community, he stated, “We want to have the energy … be loud and raise our voices, but when stuff like this happens we just sort of get quiet and tired and sad. Maybe we just need to be alive and just focus on that, and so it’s tough to want to do more.”

Student B, a first-year student who attended the vigil as an ally, shared that “it felt so unimaginable to me that the authority figures of Owasso High School not only failed to appropriately respond to the situation … but that the school facilitated the homophobic environment for such a tragedy to occur. I felt a great sense of mourning for this wonderful, beautiful teenager who had been robbed of the magnificent life that was awaiting for them.”

Organizers from both inside and outside the CWRU community see Benedict’s suicide against the background of Oklahoma’s laws against transgender individuals, specifically minors. Oklahoma Governor John Kevin Stitt issued an executive order on Aug. 1, 2023, stating that the classification of “male” and “female” were strictly defined by one’s natural, biological reproductive organs.

Schwartz noted that these measures are not supportive for students who identify as LGBTQIA+. They said, “This is something we know specifically about Owasso as well because they’re kind of infamous in LGBTQ spaces for how they handle this sort of thing. We don’t have anything to protect our kids whatsoever.” Currently, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating Benedict’s school district for Title IX violations.

While Benedict’s case takes place in Oklahoma, attendees at the vigil and Schwartz draw a comparison to legislation in Ohio and across the country. Student B also touched upon pertinent information regarding their experience and observations back home: “I come from the South, where my state officials are also enforcing similarly violent, hateful legislature targeting queerness in schools. I know countless people who are actively being affected by such harmful bills, most prominently my sister and three cousins … [who] are currently in high school and identify as gay, queer and gender queer in various capacities … Nex is not so different from [them]. I don’t want to have to worry about my sister’s safety as they go to school because of the increasing levels of homophobia being encouraged by government officials.”

In December 2023, House Bill 68, which bars gender affirming care for minors and transgender women from playing on sports teams that match their gender identity, passed Ohio’s legislative process and becomes effective on April 24. Even though Ohio Governor Mike DeWine vetoed the bill, the Ohio General Assembly and Senate overturned the veto. Furthermore, for a period of time in early January, the state’s Department of Health and Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services were considering adding more requirements for adults seeking gender affirming care, which would mark Ohio as the first state to mandate such a move.

This is why many community members, including Schwartz, want CWRU to be more involved in Ohio’s legislative process for queer and trans students. They note that these policies don’t just impact CWRU but also the university’s ability to recruit students and become increasingly involved with the community. They said, “If we wanted to be leaders in some sort of way, if we wanted to show that this sort of thing is not acceptable at [CWRU], then why are we not organizing something around it either to support an initiative, something that is institutional, that is directed towards supporting trans students? If not at [CWRU], then in Ohio?”

Isaac, who works for the LGBT Center, said that if the center had more funding, their reach would be greater. Additionally, Isaac suggested expanding the gender-inclusive housing for first-year students, creating more gender-inclusive restrooms, making Diversity 360 more actionable for trans people and helping students know what resources are available.

Student B shares the sentiment. “CWRU as an institute should facilitate a safe space that is intolerant of all forms of homophobia and transphobia,” they said. “Trans students need to be acknowledged and have the right to feel safe at Case Western. We can not be complicit in this attack on certain people within our community simply because of their identity. It is more critical than ever to stand up for the marginalized queer communities around us.”

When asked to comment, the university disclosed, “As a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization, [CWRU] must comply with a number of state and federal laws and regulations that prohibit its involvement in partisan political activity and impose some limits on our participation in issue advocacy.”

“However, [CWRU], in collaboration with its respective higher education associations, monitors and responds to legislative issues that impact the university. The university is committed to cultivating an inclusive and welcoming campus environment and supports the right of every faculty, staff and student member to advocate personally for or against legislation, including legislation concerning LGBTQ+ Protections,” reads the university’s statement.

Though, in comments to The Observer, there is an exception of organizations to engage in “issues of public policies” as “the LGBT Center continues to be a safe space and advocates for students in the LGBTQ community and allies.” The university highlights several programs, including TransAlly 101, Pronoun Workshop and Safe Zone [training] in addition to other groups, such as OTPOC and Gender Resistance.

Currently, CWRU has several LGBTQIA+ resources available for the university community in addition to the LGBT Center. University Health and Counseling Services provides gender-affirming care and group counseling sessions such as LGBTQ+ therapy and Trans and Gender-nonconforming. Additionally, the CWRU Pride LGBT Alumni Network connects students to those with similar experiences and fosters close community amidst one’s navigation of identity.

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