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  • Writer's pictureBrad Ward

Dedicated to Nex Benedict, 2008-2024, Owasso, Oklahoma

Nex Benedict and I weren’t supposed to intersect.  Not like this.  


As a college counselor, I visit colleges every chance I get: summers, Spring Break, Presidents Week.  It’s professional development: students at my high school apply to colleges all across the country.  My visits are on a rotation, so I return to most of them before too much time passes: tour new buildings, meet with admissions reps, check in with students I know.  And, importantly, experience the culture.  


This year, my travels returned me to Texas and Oklahoma.  New laws are being passed against me and my community.  I’m a transgender woman.  Oklahoma is said to have passed the most laws against us; Texas isn’t doing much better.  Whether restricting our access to gender-affirming hormones or surgery, preventing us from changing our sex on our drivers licenses and birth certificates and using our lived pronouns in the classroom, banning books about us and not permitting discussions in classrooms, forbidding us from playing sports, it’s increasingly harder for us to live and be seen.  But whatever negatives I’ve experienced as an adult - and I have for just wearing skirts - it can be infinitely more difficult for adolescents.  


Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old non-binary high school sophomore at Owasso High School outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma, committed suicide on February 8, just one day after a fight in a bathroom after months of being bullied, in a state whose government is actively hostile to trans people.  One of the hardest things for me about being transgender is constantly reading about all of the violence against us, the bullying, the suicides, and attempted suicides.   


Nex was dead. 


When I’d planned this trip, they were/he was (Nex used varying pronouns depending on the setting) a living high school sophomore trying to navigate the already-challenging path through adolescence, but with added difficulty as a non-binary teen, even more challenging living in Oklahoma.  Nex was growing, starting a new life as a new gender, pushing boundaries.  


I’d been at times reluctant to go on this trip, but booked it anyway: these are two states that desperately need to see trans people, and I wasn’t going to give in to any fears, let the haters scare me away, or tuck my hair into a cap and wear pants and polo shirts or something to look less feminine.  I’ve visited Humboldt, Nebraska, where transgender young adult Brandon Teena was raped and murdered by two men.  I’ve been to Laramie, Wyoming, where gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was beaten up by two men and left to die tied to a fencepost.  And even in the liberal San Francisco Bay Area, I live only miles from Newark, where 17-year-old transgender girl Gwen Araujo was murdered by four men.  I’m always hyper-aware of my surroundings, even when I’m out for runs in my hometown where I know many people and a nearby house can be a safe escape for me if threatened.  I never post anything on social media live—and will never be able to for the rest of my life—that would reveal my location and potentially invite trouble by those who would harm me.


But during my nine days in Oklahoma and Texas, I was about 60 for 60 in using women’s bathrooms—colleges and hotel lobbies and the airport—while encountering zero other negative incidents in those settings or parking lots, town sidewalks, the Austin and Oklahoma City capitol grounds, groceries, Target, Buc-ee’s, Bass Pro Shops, gas stations, convenience stores.  No matter if it was day or night, or urban, suburban, or even rural redneck America celebrated in the country music I love; I even walked without incident around downtown Clinton, Oklahoma, home of the late Toby Keith.  


Where were the outraged citizens with pitchforks and torches and guns, chasing me out of town?  Where were the mothers and other women, calling police because they thought a man was in the women’s bathroom?  Where were the snickers, insults, or taunts from passers-by?


I don’t know how much of my nothing-to-report nine-day experience could be attributed to my White privilege, or my age: I’m neither middle- or high school-aged, nor an ethnic or racial minority whose intersection of identities leads them to experience higher rates of violence.  I’m not saying there’s not a severe problem, or that things are all fine, painting some sunshine-and-rainbows version of Texas and Oklahoma, denying these laws aren’t being passed, making light of or minimizing Nex’s death, or saying Nex wasn’t bullied.  But was it even partly possible, that even in these deeply red states, most of the haters are still in a very small minority, and that based on my experience, the general population is actually more accepting of us than they let on?  I’m a sample size of only one, but during those nine days, everywhere across these two states, where was the hate or intolerance?  


I felt guilty being able to leave Oklahoma and Texas, because so many others could not, and they had to live with these harmful restrictions whereas I was flying home to all of the freedoms guaranteed in California.  In many ways I’m jealous of many of today’s youth, with - at least in some states - access to the hormones and surgeries I didn’t even know about when I was their age.  But though we’d grown and progressed in so many ways in the last 10-20 years, suddenly in so many states there has been severe regression.  And there’s been an uptick in violence against the LGBTQIA+ community in states where these laws are being passed against us.  


We need settings and environments where we can thrive.  It’s no coincidence I began pushing my boundaries and growing when I finally began to know who I was and came out.  I could finally be myself, and discover the self-confidence I’d formerly lacked.  I could increasingly express what was inside me, on the outside.  I found mentors, allies, and my own community, some still closeted but many others teaching me how to live proudly.  And many of them have been young people, who by knowing me were themselves helped in their own coming-out journeys, nearly all supported by their families.


When I started to come out to myself and a group of family, friends, and colleagues around 2005, I finally pushed myself to apply to and attend grad school.  After I came out publicly in 2017, I was confirmed as a Board member for my college counseling and admissions professional association, my first-ever major leadership position, and began making presentations at national and regional conferences, seeking and stepping into spotlights instead of avoiding them.  In 2018, I took a huge risk and switched to the completely unfamiliar world of public schools after a lifetime of private school education and 18 years of private school employment.  In 2019, I began pursuing the goal of becoming the first transgender person to reach the highest point of all 50 states, and having reached 40 of them by 2022 - while wearing skirts at all of them - began a simultaneous pursuit of being the first to get to all 50 wearing a dress (reaching 33 last summer); going well beyond my former physical limitations, I climbed seriously challenging mountains in the harsh and deadly environments I’d avoided when I identified as male.  


All my jobs have featured genuine, positive, affirming, validating, empowering support we’d all love to receive: my Dean of Admissions boss who when I came out to him told me just to be me, and how it was no concern to the university; my high school Principal asking me to dance with her and a colleague up on a stage in front of part of the student body while I was wearing a skirt; another’s Principal asking me if I wanted to share my story with the entire faculty and staff in my very first faculty meeting; my current school’s administration asking me if I wanted to tell my story at an assembly in front of the entire student body.  Being my authentic self, with so many allies, has been so empowering.  This is what I want for all of us.  


But I also experienced horrific anti-trans, sexist discrimination at the hands of another high school, an intervention that delayed my coming out and interfered with my own physical body.  And that was with my being well into my adult years: knowing what teenager Nex had to endure, resulting in never having the chance to achieve his/their potential, is gut-wrenching.  Only when we can grow and thrive will everyone know how many of us there are, and what we can do in life.


17-year-old transgender high school student Leelah Alcorn committed suicide outside my hometown Cincinnati, Ohio, in 2014.  My brother’s former neighbor, 14-year-old gender-nonconforming 9th grader Esmé Page of Claremont, California, committed suicide in 2015.  After their deaths I knew I needed to make a positive difference in young people’s lives, both directly with the ones who saw me, as well as with their high school counselors, college admissions staff, and on social media to anyone interested.  Being my genuine self was my only path, rather than silent and invisible as that one former employer preferred me to be.  


I’d have much preferred for Nex to see me on a tour of the University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, the University of Tulsa, Texas Tech, TCU, Baylor, Southwestern, UT-Austin, UT-San Antonio, Trinity University, Rice, or Texas A&M (I canceled my visit to SMU in order to attend Nex’s memorial).  Or for Nex to come across one of my webinars or presentations about how to help trans kids in the college search and application process.  Or for me to read about Nex in leadership roles, going to college, maybe even joining my profession.  


Across the street from Owasso High School, I saw Rib Crib BBQ.  Proudly painted on the side of its building is “An Original Okie BBQ Shack.”  Hmmm.  Do Oklahoma schools, under the direction of the state superintendent of education who is banning books about LGBTQIA+ people and whose government includes a senator who calls us “filth,” require reading John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath?”  They should.  Countless migrant Oklahomans were forced to move to California during the Dust Bowl, including the Joad family, and were derisively called “Okies.”  


The following excerpt sounds like how some Oklahomans now treat trans people: 

“People gonna have a look in their eye.  They gonna look at you an’ their face says, ‘I don’t like you, you son-of-a-bitch.’...You gonna see in people’s face how they hate you...Okie use’ to mean you was from Oklahoma.  Now it means you’re a dirty son-of-a-bitch.  Okie means you’re scum.”


What a coincidence the Joads lived not far from Owasso.  They began their westward journey through Sallisaw, passing through Henryetta, picking up Route 66 in Oklahoma City.  


Back then, California’s border patrol harassed immigrants.  Immigrants, that is, from Oklahoma.  A California law enforcement officer tells the Joad family matriarch at the border, “You ain’t in your country now.  You’re in California, an’ we don’t want you goddamn Okies settlin’ down.”


Do Oklahomans realize the irony?  Have you forgotten your own history of your own people when they needed help and encountered such treatment?  I hope every high school student in Oklahoma will read The Grapes of Wrath and think of Nex, the transgender population, and other marginalized groups while doing so.  The musical and film Oklahoma! won numerous Tonys, and claimed Oklahomans and their state were “gonna treat you great…You’re doin’ fine, Oklahoma, Oklahoma, OK!”  


No.  


Today you’ve claimed the term “Okie” as one of power, yet think it’s OK (pun intended) to make lives worse for another vulnerable population.


Nex, I am sorry we never met in life.  You were so brave and courageous for living as your authentic self in such a hostile environment, and I wish you could have grown and pushed boundaries even more.  Rest In Power. 

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