Nex Benedict’s tragic death proves the US and UK have learnt nothing about inclusivity in schools

By Louis Shankar

Updated Feb 28, 2024 at 11:10 AM

Reading time: 3 minutes

On Sunday 25 February 2024, communities across Oklahoma and the United States held vigils in memory of Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old non-binary student whose life was tragically cut short. Benedict died after being attacked in a school bathroom, highlighting the brutal violence many transgender and non-binary youths face every day.

The incident began with a confrontation in the bathroom involving Benedict and another transgender student against three older girls, as described by Benedict’s mother, Sue. The altercation resulted in Benedict being knocked to the ground, hitting his head, and sustaining serious injuries that led to his subsequent death the following day.

This tragic event occurred against the backdrop of a controversial bill signed by Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt nearly two years prior, which requires students to use bathrooms that match the sex listed on their birth certificates—a policy that forced Benedict into a dangerous and discriminatory situation.

The loss of Benedict is a grim reminder of the ongoing violence against transgender individuals, mirroring the murder of Brianna Ghey in the UK. It emphasises the difficult environment young people navigating their gender identity must contend with, a reality painfully underscored by the pervasive sharing of such stories on social media platforms like X (formerly Twitter) and Instagram.

 

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The widespread media coverage of Benedict’s story, while raising awareness, also sparked a flood of misinformation and insensitivity. The internet, sigh. The case exemplifies the tension between the immediate demand for accountability on social media and the slower pace of the justice system.

In light of Ghey’s killers’ anonymity being revoked after conviction, it’s clear that these narratives provoke both outrage and fear. Yet, they necessitate careful, thoughtful reporting rather than sensationalism or divisive commentary.

Reflecting on my own journey of identity exploration, which began in university, I recognise the dual reality of schools as spaces of increasing acceptance and, simultaneously, intense challenges for queer youth. The proactive stance of students, demonstrated by walkouts at Owasso High School, signals the emergence of a new generation that is ready to challenge inadequate policies and demand better.

Yet, the systemic exclusion of students from decision-making processes, particularly in matters affecting their safety and well-being, highlights a significant challenge. Despite this, the story of Benedict, supported by his parents, highlights the gradual but inconsistent recognition of non-binary identities across the US, even as setbacks occur, particularly in states like Oklahoma.

Non-binary identities are currently recognised in over twenty American states. Oklahoma also did for a short while, but this decision was quickly overturned. As a state, it is at the forefront of such reactionary politics and culture wars. Chaya Raichik, a far-right internet troll known for running @LibsOfTikTok, was recently appointed to the Oklahoma Library Media Advisory Board, despite having no personal connection to the state.

The convergence of moral panics surrounding trans individuals, especially trans youth, and the politicisation of education and public facilities, presents a daunting landscape. These issues are not limited to the US but are also prevalent in the UK, as evidenced by political figures succumbing to misinformation and hoaxes, further polarising public discourse and policy.

Kemi Badenoch—who is somehow still serving as both Secretary of State for Business and Trade and Minister for Women and Equalities in the UK, despite being a profligate liar and charlatan—fell for a hoax last year. This hoax falsely claimed that children in schools were identifying as cats, supposedly supported and encouraged by teachers. It is this type of ridicule that is incredibly dangerous to nonbinary children. It belittles, marginalises, and erases their identities.

Politicians like former Home Secretary Suella Braverman have been misled by a plethora of hoaxes and mistruths, often propagated on the internet by teenagers. When these falsehoods are amplified or taken out of context by the tabloid media, or even worse, by far-right troll accounts, the consequences can be severe. This pattern highlights the questionable sources from which politicians like Badenoch may derive their information—similar to how reporting on Fox News aligned with Donald Trump’s Twitter activity during his presidency.

Despite the Tories being in power for almost 14 years, they continue to blame schools and unfairly criticise teachers, who are often underpaid and undervalued. Independent schools that innovate by teaching beyond the standard curriculum or organising in unique ways are also a product of Conservative policies, such as the introduction of free schools in 2010.

When it comes to education policy, the Tories are quick to claim success when English schools show high performance in terms of grades. However, when schools aim to teach a more accurate version of British history or foster inclusive, representative communities, they face condemnation.

The Conservative Party has had difficulty appealing to young voters for many years, and the upcoming election will pose a significant challenge. This is especially true considering an entire generation has now experienced secondary education under Conservative governance.

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