CHURCH & STATE | Oklahoma Devalues Transgender and Nonbinary Kids — With Tragic Results

The Pew Research Center reported in 2022 that 1.6% of Americans are transgender or nonbinary. Among those aged 18-29, the figure hit 5 percent.

That’s millions of people. They are children, our neighbors, our friends and our coworkers. And in many parts of the country, their lives are treated as disposable.

Consider Oklahoma. Under State Superintendent of Instruction Ryan Walters, the state has embarked on an aggressive campaign to reverse the gains made by LGBTQ+ people in recent years. Walters seem to have a special antipathy for transgender/nonbinary students. Put bluntly, Walters not only doesn’t care about these young people, he denies their very existence. In Walters’ opinion, which is informed by his worldview of rigid, fundamentalist Christianity, there are only two genders. God said so. End of discussion.

This callous attitude is having dire consequences. Early in February, Nex Benedict, a nonbinary sixteen-year-old sophomore at Owasso High School, was assaulted in a school bathroom, allegedly by three girls. Benedict, who used they/them pronouns, died in a hospital two days later.

Initial media accounts implied a connection between the assault and Benedict’s death. There was one, but it’s not what you might assume. According to a medical examiner’s report, Benedict died of a drug overdose; they committed suicide.

Oklahoma school officials should not look at this as some sort of exoneration. The question they need to be asking themselves is how their hateful policies led a young person down the path of such despair that they chose to end their own life.

Benedict’s grandmother and legal guardian, Sue Benedict, told reporters that Nex had suffered harassment at the school for the past year. Oklahoma’s policies only made Nex’s situation worse. The state passed a law requiring students to use the bathrooms that match the sex listed on their birth certificates and banned transgender girls from competing on girls’ sports teams in public schools. Walters pushed a rule denying trans students the right to change their genders on school files.

Consider the message these actions send to young people who are transgender or nonbinary: You are worthless. We don’t value you. We don’t want you here. We don’t even acknowledge your existence.  

When he’s not on a crusade to force fundamentalist Christianity into Oklahoma’s schools, Walters spends his time pandering to his political base by looking for ways to make the lives of transgender/nonbinary kids as miserable as possible. He recently appointed Chaya Raichik, a notorious right-wing hatemonger, to a state panel that screens (read: censors) textbooks. Raichik doesn’t live in Oklahoma and has no relevant experience in education. She runs inflammatory social media accounts under the moniker “Libs of TikTok” that are known for attacking LGBTQ+ people; she once smeared the Trevor Project, a group that works to prevent suicide among LGBTQ+ youth, labeling it a “grooming organization.”

Again, what message is sent?

Marginalized books and students by John Cole, Georgia Recorder,

Journalist and LGBTQ+ advocate Erin Reed has identified Oklahoma as one of the most dangerous states for trans youth and adults. The Sooner State consistently sends the message to trans/nonbinary people that there’s something wrong with being the way they are, and through its policies tells them that their rights are meaningless if not outright nonexistent, and accordingly won’t be respected.

An atmosphere like this creates a structure that empowers bullies and bigots. They are granted tacit permission to target those who are different. When the highest authorities in the state’s education system aggressively push policies that discriminate against the “other,” you can bet that teenagers will notice it.

And those teens who are targeted will notice when public education fails at its first duty, which is to welcome everyone. The idea behind public education is that it serves, well, the public. Ideally, children will be embraced whatever race, creed/philosophy or gender expression they align with.

I have no doubt that there are many good and decent teachers in Oklahoma’s public schools who hold to this standard. But the man at the top of the system has defaulted on the job by making it clear, through words and actions, that he doesn’t support the central mission of public schools.

Walters, it’s worth pointing out, is trying to bring the nation’s first “religious public charter school” to Oklahoma. It’s an oxymoron. Religious schools are private institutions. A school cannot be simultaneously “public” and “private.” Apparently, if he can’t get that old-time religion into the public schools, Walters will embrace privatization schemes.

Walters now find himself under growing scrutiny. In the wake of Nex Benedict’s death, more than 350 organizations have demanded that Walters be removed from office, and a petition has been circulated calling for his ouster. The U.S. Department of Education is also investigating how the school so tragically failed Nex.

Walters has, of course doubled down. What’s his endgame? He clearly has his eye on something loftier than his current position. Walters recently spent $30,000 in taxpayer funds to hire a public-relations firm to book him on TV talk shows, and he has been appearing at right-wing events in other states.

No matter where he hopes to go, one thing is clear: Walters has no problem climbing over the bodies of dead transgender/nonbinary youth to get there.