Editorials, Opinion

Direct link between politics & teen’s death

An Oklahoma teenager died earlier this month after being beaten up during a fight with some older girls in a school bathroom. The school failed to call an ambulance or police despite the fact the 16-year-old had been struck in the head, leaving them with bruises and scratches on their head and face, and had lost consciousness. Their parents took them to the hospital, where the teen was checked over and sent home. But the next morning, this child — who should have had dozens of life’s most precious milestones ahead — collapsed at home, then died shortly after.

One Oklahoma state lawmaker responded to a question about the teen’s death with: “I represent a constituency that doesn’t want that filth in Oklahoma. …” His words were met with applause.

“That filth” was Nex Benedict: A 16-year-old straight-A student who loved reading, drawing and cats — and who was nonbinary. At least some of Oklahoma’s political leaders had the decency to offer their condolences, hollow as they may be considering those same politicians have repeatedly stoked fear and resentment toward the LGBTQ+ community.

Regardless of our political or religious backgrounds, we should all look upon the preventable death of a teenager with horror and sadness. No one should ever denigrate a dead child as “that filth.”

What does this have to do with West Virginia? Nex’s death was a direct result of the culture war politics and hateful rhetoric put forth by Oklahoma’s ruling Republican majority. Nex’s death came shortly after Oklahoma mandated bathroom and locker room use based on biological sex. (Nex was biologically female.) The hate and fear-mongering spewed by politicians fueled the bullying that led to the fight and Nex’s beating.

Initial autopsy reports suggest death was not due to physical trauma, but police are still investigating the fight as a potential cause of death. Even if the beating isn’t what killed Nex, the fight should never have happened. Nex had been bullied for so long and with so little support from the school that they stopped reporting the verbal abuse. The school was equally unhelpful the day it turned physical.

The same kind of hate and toxicity on display in Oklahoma is flowing freely through West Virginia’s Capitol and from the lips of politicians. (E.g., Chris Miller’s menacing campaign ad — complete with dim lighting, dingy lockers and Miller glaring down into the camera — promising the kind of bathroom law Oklahoma implemented.) The West Virginia Legislature has introduced no fewer than eight anti-transgender/nonbinary bills, plus at least three anti-drag bills. (Drag is separate from transgender/nonbinary, but it is often attacked for similar reasons.)

Some of these bills are more subtle, like HB 4233, to force birth certificates to record gender/sex as either “male” or “female,” or the misleadingly named “Women’s Bill of Rights,” to codify that there are only two genders and those genders are based on biological sex. These attack a person’s right to determine their identity. Then there’s SB 195, to label as obscene any depiction of transgender people, which promotes the idea there is something inherently wrong with transgender or nonbinary people. Others are more harmful in the practical sense: Several that have been introduced this year — like HB 4884, HB 4922 and HB 4923 — or in past deliberately interfere with the ability to seek or receive gender-affirming care.

Transgender/nonbinary people make easy political scapegoats, in part because this group is so small. According to 2022 data from the Williams Institute, roughly 700 West Virginia teenagers (13-17) and 5,700 adults (age 18 or older) identified as transgender — about 0.3% of the state’s population.

We won’t say these anti-trans/nonbinary bills are solutions in search of problems, because that minimizes the real impact these bills have on real people like Nex Benedict, who should have had their whole future ahead of them. But bullying — personal and legislative — is part of the reason LGBTQ+ people experience higher rates of suicide and homicide than the general population.

There is a direct link between the hateful words and policies of Oklahoma’s politicians and Nex’s beating, if not their death. West Virginians should learn from Oklahoma’s mistakes and stop these useless culture wars before we lose more children to senseless hate.