‘LGBTQ+ youth deserve to become queer elders’: Faith leaders respond to death of Nex Benedict

Nex Benedict died on Feb. 8, the day after the nonbinary 16-year-old was reportedly beaten by classmates in the bathroom of their Oklahoma high school.

Outrage followed reports of Benedict’s death. With calls for a full investigation from their family and LGBTQ+ advocacy groups, the story has drawn widespread attention to experiences of LGBTQ+ youth. Oklahoma’s medical examiner recently determined Benedict’s death a suicide, and last week Oklahoma’s District Attorney ruled that no criminal charges will be filed in the case.

“Nex Benedict should still be here,” said Rachael Ward, minister and team lead for the United Church of Christ’s Gender and Sexuality Justice Ministries. “LGBTQ+ youth deserve to become queer elders. They deserve environments where they can flourish with nurturing care, support, and resources. For many queer youth, school can become a safe haven for friendships, mentorships, and discovery of what brings them life. They should not be environments where life is taken away or diminished.” 

The outcry and outrage remains present as advocacy groups like the Human Rights Campaign call for wider investigation into the school system, Oklahoma’s Department of Education, and the state superintendent. 

‘To our LGBTQ+ youth: you are enough.’

Benedict reported experiencing bullying at school for how they dressed, and the altercation prior to their death took place in the girl’s restroom — the bathroom Benedict was forced to use as a result of Oklahoma’s 2023 bathroom ban bill. Similar bathroom bans are circulating across the United States, mandating that trans and nonbinary people use the bathroom correlated to the sex listed on their birth certificate.

These bans “attack the full personhood of queer youth and adults,” Ward said. “Legislation that provokes hatred can and will lead to violence. Legislation like bathroom bans are direct attempts to disembody the personhood of LGBTQ people. If the Imago Dei lives within each of us, then bills aiming to fragment the personhood of queer people are direct attempts to disembody God, which in my view is a sin.”

Fellowship Congregational UCC in Tulsa has received “Love is Louder” funds to support LGBTQ+ people in the surrounding community where Nex Benedict lived.

The Trevor Project, which supports LGBTQ+ youth, reported an increase from 230,000 calls and texts to over 500,000 in the last year to their suicide prevention and crisis hotlines. The Rainbow Youth Project reported anti-LGBTQ+ “political rhetoric” as the number one reason youth contacted the nonprofit’s crisis support line.

Acknowledging the fear and violence taking place against trans and nonbinary youth, Ward emphasizes the love that surrounds them.

“To our LGBTQ+ youth: you are enough. God loves you. I love you. And we are here advocating and sending all our love to you,” they said. “This moment is scary. And admitting that to our communities is important. Your emotions, your fears, and your hopes are valid. There are more people than you are aware of around you who truly are for you and your flourishing. I grieve with you. I cry out alongside you, and God does too. We were created by a God who grieves, who cries out, and desires nothing less than our fullness to be seen, validated, and experienced in this world. Stay grounded in your truth and your being. The jubilee of our queerness can still be right now as resistance and persistence as a beloved child of God.”

Safe havens for queer youth

Fellowship Congregational UCC, located in Tulsa, Oklahoma, just a short drive from Benedict’s school, is collectively asking what this moment asks of them as siblings in Christ — especially as this year’s legislative session is seeing an even higher number of anti-trans bills across the U.S.

The Rev. Chris Moore, Fellowship Congregational’s lead pastor, vocalized a deep need for continued “places of acceptance, support, education, and work toward building resilient people and communities.”

Moore describes relationship-building as a starting point for how to show up in these moments of loss.

“Get close to LGBTQ+ folx if they are not already in your congregations,” he offered. “If you have hetero or cis privilege, use it in places where misinformation abounds. Educate yourself. There is zero shame in not knowing what every letter of the alphabet soup means, or what every flag stands for.” 

Fellowship Congregational has worked to create a coalition in their area with other local faith communities to prioritize the care of the LGBTQ+ community over recent years, and they are discerning how to proactively respond to Benedict’s death by continuing to be a safe haven for queer youth and adults while also building awareness and education to share outwardly in the community.

Love is Louder

The church will receive money raised through the UCC’s “Love is Louder: Love Your Neighbor OUT LOUD” campaign to begin its own discretionary fund for care of LGBTQ+ community members. This fund arose through a shirt with these words that debuted at last year’s General Synod.

“When I first heard of Nex’s death, I knew that our response needed to be proactive and needed to be full of love and just action,” Ward said. “Rev. Chris and his congregation will discern educational ways to engage the community around queer theology and communal care — and how to best support other local entities advocating for LGBTQ+ youth. This shirt serves not only as a conversation piece, but as a way for us to support local congregations who desire to care for LGBTQ+ youth, especially trans and non-binary youth facing the harshest rhetoric. In moments of hate, love is indeed louder.”

Chart from translegislation.com demonstrates the surge in anti-trans bills considered and passed since 2023.

Another relationship tool, Moore adds, is writing your legislator — a form of advocacy that the wider church can participate in through the UCC Office of Public Policy and Advocacy in Washington, D.C. Two action alerts are currently available to advocate for trans and nonbinary lives: one advocating for the Transgender Bill of Rights, and another in support of the Equality Act.

“Denouncing legislated hate will not be enough to save our queer youth,” Ward said. “Denouncing is our starting point and, from there, we go outward to act in just love and advocacy. We are in a moment of rupture that beckons us to organize, care, and be the body of Christ in real time.”

Grieving in community

Several churches in the UCC have responded to Benedict’s death by creating space for community ritual and grief.

First Church UCC in downtown Phoenix hosted a vigil Feb. 28 following Benedict’s death, with around 100 community members gathering to mourn. Similarly, West Hollywood UCC in Los Angeles provided space for a special vigil to honor Benedict on Feb. 25.

“Our church has been a sanctuary and, dare I say, a hotbed of activity in solidarity with the LGBTQIA+ community since the 1950s. We continue to stand with you today,” said the Rev. Tracy Kariya, pastor of West Hollywood UCC, in remarks during the vigil. “We were devastated and distressed to hear of the violence perpetrated towards Nex Benedict. Our hearts go out to Nex’s family and friends and community. We pray for justice. We pray for more information. We pray for openness and transparency as they continue to investigate exactly what happened.”

Ward suggested several additional opportunities for people to take action in memory of Benedict and to continue loving their neighbors well.

Gender and Sexuality Justice Ministries is holding a webinar, “Advocacy 101: Communal Care for Trans & Non-Binary Siblings,” on April 17, which will journey through the “Love is Louder” toolkit for trans and non-binary siblings. Registration is available here.

People can also participate in the Transgender Day of Visibility on March 31 by contributing artwork or writing for Freedom Oklahoma’s TDOR Community Art Project.

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Categories: United Church of Christ News

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