Nex Benedict mourned by hundreds in Oklahoma City vigil: 'We need change'

OKLAHOMA CITY – Hundreds of people gathered in Oklahoma City on Saturday to pay tribute to Nex Benedict, a teenager whose death following a fight inside a high school bathroom sparked widespread heartbreak and outrage across the nation.

Interest in the high school sophomore's death has swelled over the past week, particularly because of Nex's gender-expansive identity and claims of what led up to the fight at Owasso High School on Feb 7. Nex, who went by the pronouns he/him and they, them, and was part of the LGBTQ+ community, their friends and family have said.

Although the exact details of the fight remain unclear, the teen's family and friends have said Nex was routinely bullied because of their gender identity. Medical examiners are still completing their investigation into what killed Nex, but police have said that an autopsy determined they did not die as a result of trauma. The family held a funeral service for the teen on Feb. 15.

On Saturday, more than 500 people filled the Point A Gallery, a venue in Oklahoma City's LGBTQ+ community haven, while at least 100 others crowded the street outside, watching the vigil on their phones via livestream. People like Rebecca Bevan said they were saddened by the 16-year-old's death and they wanted to pay their respects.

"It is important for us as a community to come together to show our support for our young people, to let them know that it is okay for them to be who they are no matter — trans, bi, straight, poly — no matter who they are, they can be themselves and be who they are in the open and not have to hide, because I was one of those people that had to hide as a lesbian," Bevan told The Oklahoman, part of the USA TODAY Network.

Kathleen Hanlon said she read about Nex's death and felt compelled to attend the candlelight service.

"I can't quit thinking about it," she said. "I feel so bad."

Kody Macaulay holds a sign during a candlelight service for Nex Benedict on Saturday at Point A Gallery, 2124 NW 39 Street in Oklahoma City. (Credit: NATE BILLINGS/FOR THE OKLAHOMAN)
Kody Macaulay holds a sign during a candlelight service for Nex Benedict on Saturday at Point A Gallery, 2124 NW 39 Street in Oklahoma City. (Credit: NATE BILLINGS/FOR THE OKLAHOMAN)

'We need change in Oklahoma'

The vigil, hosted by Rural Oklahoma Pride and Point A Gallery, was one of many memorial events held Saturday around Oklahoma.

Bryan Paddock, one of the co-founders of Rural Oklahoma Pride, said his organization wanted to bring people together because he said a vigil is an event where a stance is taken to "light the pathway forward."

"We lost a member of our community – they may have been young, but they were lost to us way too soon," he said.

"This is us taking a stand for that person as well as our community. We need change in Oklahoma. We need change in the United States. That youth was not protected as they should have been and there's so much legislation out there that is seeking to erase or dispose of our community."

Kendra Wilson-Clements, who is Choctaw, gave a blessing at the beginning of the event that conveyed the love that many attendees said they felt for Nex, though they had never met them.

"As you journey beyond this realm, may the strength and wisdom of our ancestors guide you as you transcend the pain and cruelty inflicted upon you in this world," Wilson-Clements said of Nex. "Rest in power, knowing that you are loved, cherished, and held in everlasting remembrance."

What does 'gender-expansive' mean? Oklahoma teen's death puts identity in spotlight.

Pushing back against rhetoric, legislation

The accusations of bullying and the school altercation have drawn particular interest from LGBTQ+ advocates and allies, along with criticism toward officials overseeing Nex's case. Several advocacy groups have said Oklahoma right-wing extremists' rhetoric surrounding gender and sexual identity were contributing factors in Nex's death.

The organizations are calling for better protection for students who may be bullied because of their gender or sexual identity.

These concerns seemed to contribute to the tone of Saturday's event as part memorial service, part rally. Speakers shared prayers and paid tribute to Nex, while also urging attendees to show their support for young people in the LGBTQ+ community. Advocates also urged taking a stand against anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, violence, and legislation.

Oklahoma, they said, has become known for all of those things, and that needs to change.

"Governor (Kevin) Stitt wants it to be a top ten state, well what I see is top ten hate," said Nicole Poindexter, associate regional campaign director at the Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBTQ+ advocacy group.

Poindextor said the Human Rights Campaign is calling for the Oklahoma State Legislature to remove state Schools Superintendent Ryan Walters from his post and asking the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education to each conduct investigations into the claims of anti-LGBTQ+ bullying of Nex at Owasso High and the altercation that occurred the day before they died.

Nicole McAfee, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, said some people were saying Nex's story was a "wake-up call" for Oklahoma but added that "this isn't a wake-up call – we've been screaming for help."

"We know that no one is going to come save us but us," McAfee said.

The LGBTQ+ leader said library book bans, mandatory outing of students to their parents and limiting bathroom access were "all new versions of old tactics meant to isolate and cause despair" in the LGBTQ+ community. But McAfee said connecting through events like the prayer vigil sparked hope. She asked attendees to help keep Nex's story in the media as part of the quest for justice.

Nex Benedict case: Death of teen did not result from trauma, police say; many questions remain

'You're not alone'

Toward the vigil's end, Kris Williams, who formerly worked to help queer young people in the 39th Street District, spoke to the crowd. Williams asked all the queer adults to hold their candles high in the air during one of the more poignant moments of the event.

"Show these babies where all the queer adults are," Williams said.

"This is your family. These are the people who have your back. These are the people who made it through their teenage years and came out on the other side. They are the ones who are living healthy, good lives. You are not alone – do you understand? You are not alone."

Lance Preston, founder and executive director of Rainbow Youth Project USA, said his Indianapolis-based organization provides mental health services for young people in the LGBTQ+ community. He said his group has been partnering with LGBTQ+ advocacy groups in Oklahoma for years and he came to the prayer vigil on Saturday in solidarity with the Oklahoma LGBTQ+ community.

Preston said his organization is receiving an increased number of crisis calls from young people in the weekend following Nex's death. He said typically, the agency receives about 87 crisis calls a week, and they had more than 200 calls the weekend after the Owasso teen's death. Preston said 87% of the young people reported bullying and 60% mentioned Nex's name.

Because of this, he said he was especially pleased to see the large crowd gathered to honor Nex and support LGBTQ+ young people like them.

"What I love is that the kids see this and they know they've got somebody," Preston said.

A photograph of Nex Benedict is projected during a candlelight service in Oklahoma City.
A photograph of Nex Benedict is projected during a candlelight service in Oklahoma City.

Contributing: Christopher Cann, USA TODAY

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Nex Benedict remembered by hundreds in Oklahoma City vigil