Community shows up for student-led 'Vigil for Nex'

Mar. 6—Around 50 supporters and one lone protestor attended an evening vigil in Claremore, Saturday, March 2, for Owasso High School student Nex Benedict.

Benedict, 16, who identified as nonbinary, died Feb. 8 following a fight that took place after lunch in a school restroom adjacent to the cafeteria.

The local vigil was one of many taking place around the nation in Benedict's memory. Organizers said this vigil is not only to remember the Owasso student, but to raise awareness of what can be deadly consequences of bullying, hate speech, and violence within public schools.

Benedict's death has garnered statewide and national attention. On Friday, March 1, the Human Rights Commission website released a statement saying the U.S. Department of Education is opening an inquiry into Owasso Public Schools' failure to respond to sex-based harassment that may have contributed to the teen's death.

The local event at Claremore Lake Park brought underage members of the Claremore High School Sexual and Gender Alliance together, along with other students, friends, adult family members, several community supporters, a couple of teachers, and one local church pastor.

While the Claremore event organizers and most of the speakers were teens, 68-year-old Paula Strickland took the open mic opportunity to offer words of advice and support.

Pointing out the lone protestor standing in the distance with a sign that read, "Got AIDS yet?" Strickland said, "There are 50 of us and one of him. That's as isolating as fear can be. Thank you for organizing this event to come out, and speaking. I am a 68-year-old woman and I want to tell you, 'God loves you.' If Jesus Christ came walking in here, would he come to that guy or this group?"

Instead of candles, cell phone lights were turned on as the sun went down.

Strickland told the group, "You are the light. You have allies here. We are here. No one's going back into the closet. I want you to know my daughter and wife are living their best life in Tulsa."

She reminded the teens that if they are 17-1/2, they still have time to register and will be eligible to vote before the general election.

"Please, please vote these people out," Strickland said.

Pastor Tim McHugh, pastor of Grace United Methodist Church, also stepped up to speak.

"I applaud your courage," McHugh said. "Know you are loved by so many people who love you. It takes a lot of courage to do this. And know this: Jesus loves all of us."

Jill Andrews, the CHS teacher sponsor for SAGA, said the event was organized by members of the high school organization. School district sources had no comment regarding the vigil, as it was not a school-sanctioned event.

Andrews said SAGA has become one of the largest student-led organizations at the high school. Membership includes not only LGBTQ+ members but also students of all persuasions who support inclusiveness.

"A student came to me about eight years ago and asked if I would be the faculty adviser for an LGBTQ and allies support club. I said, 'Of course'," Andrews said.

SAGA began with a small handful of students — about seven to eight kids.

"Our club now has over 70 members. I partner with Youth Services of Tulsa. They have been a great support for us. I also have amazing student leaders who are willing to take on projects and organize everything, making my role as adviser pretty easy," she said. "I love my students more than anything."

Speakers at the event, other than the adult community members, included several students, including the organizer for the event a 16-year-old CHS sophomore who identifies as transgender and asks to use the pronouns he/him. He goes by the name Crow. (Crow is not identified for safety reasons, as he says he has already received a "myriad of slurs.")

Crow's opening speech at the vigil underscored what many in attendance indicated is "adult" complicity in Benedict's death.

"I want to bring awareness; that's the point. People in power can help prevent events like this [a child's death] from happening," he said. "We also want to let other trans kids know they are not alone."

Crow said he knows what it's like to be bullied, to hear homophobic slurs in the school hallways and have a student wearing a Trump 2024 hat spill hot coffee on him. For Nex, Crow said, bullying ended a life.

There are so many factors that contributed to Nex's death, Crow said.

"And yet all of them have a common factor: hate," Crow said. "Adults contribute to the vitriol and that is unbelievable."

CHS senior Jay Arkie, 17, who said she/he is "ambiguously" transgender, was another event speaker.

"We don't know what killed Nex, but we can guess. But it's not smart to make conclusions. It's not smart to fearmonger. It's not smart to stand up [and] declare that 'that filth' does not belong in Oklahoma," Arkie said. "It took a child being beaten ... in the place they should be safest for everyone else to open their eyes and acknowledge what is going on. ... You should not feel peace until it is safe for trans youth to exist in this world, and not just as the perfect paragons and advocates for their own existence. They should get to be annoying, rude, vicious, awful, stupid, problemed, like other kids get to be, and still not get killed for it. Protect trans kids, and not just because someone told you to."

Another CHS student speaker Samuel Marsh cited a long list of statistics, one being that 41% of queer youth consider suicide.

"These are statistics that should not exist at all," he said.

This student pointed out the number of anti-LGBTQ pieces of legislation now under consideration by legislatures across the nation, including Oklahoma. The American Civil Liberties Union is tracking 471 bills nationally, 54 of them in Oklahoma.