After Nex Benedict’s death, Oklahoma’s Ryan Walters: Just two genders, as God intended

Author: Trudy Ring

Ryan Walters, the Oklahoma superintendent of public instruction, doesn’t recognize the existence of transgender or nonbinary people, even after the death of bullied nonbinary teenager Nex Benedict in his state.

“There’s not multiple genders. There’s two. That’s how God created us,” Walters told The New York Times in his first interview about Benedict’s death. He said “he did not believe that nonbinary or transgender people exist” and that the state would not let students use names or pronouns other than those matching their birth records, the Times reports.

Benedict, who was 16 and had Indigenous heritage, died February 8, a day after being beaten in a restroom at Owasso High School in Oklahoma. Their death has led to widespread outrage among LGBTQ+ advocates and allies.

“You always treat individuals with dignity or respect, because they’re made in God’s image,” Walters said, while allowing that Benedict’s death was tragic. “But that doesn’t change truth.”

Walters, a Republican, has been one of the leading anti-LGBTQ+ voices in a state with many homophobic and transphobic laws and policies. In the Times interview, he contended that activists are distorting the story around Benedict.

“I think it’s terrible that we’ve had some radical leftists who decided to run with a political agenda and try to weave a narrative that hasn’t been true,” he said. “You’ve taken a tragedy, and you’ve had some folks try to exploit it for political gain.”

He referred to an Owasso Police Department statement that said trauma was not the cause of Benedict’s death. “We’ve been told death wasn’t directly related to the fight at school,” he said.

Benedict’s family has questioned this finding, while a police spokesman acknowledged it was preliminary and that the cause of death hasn’t been determined. Toxicology and other tests still must be completed. The spokesman also confirmed that murder charges remain a possibility.

Walters has intensified the anti-LGBTQ+ climate in Oklahoma, according to numerous activists. “Ryan Walters has created a devastatingly hostile environment for trans, two-spirit, and gender-nonconforming students,” Nicole McAfee, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, told the Times. “I’ve seen more times than I can count folks share an image that Ryan Walters put out during his campaign of folks in a bathroom with language villainizing trans youth specifically.”

The environment is likely to become even more hostile. The state already has laws requiring trans students in public schools to use the restrooms and locker rooms designated for the gender they were assigned at birth, barring them from the sports teams matching their gender identity, and criminalizing the provision of gender-affirming care for trans youth. Lawmakers are considering additional anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, including a bill defining gender as an “immutable trait” and another banning the display of Pride flags in schools.

“It’s just incredibly harmful,” Whitney Cipolla, a board member at Oklahomans for Equality, told the Times. “I know queer educators who are frightened to be teaching.”

Walters, meanwhile, continues to defend his anti-LGBTQ+ stances. “I really see there’s a civil war going on, where the left is really fighting for the soul of our country,” he said in the interview. “They are undermining the very principles that made this country great, our Judeo-Christian values and our traditions in this country.”

Pictured: Ryan Walters; Nex Benedict’s funeral

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Original Article on The Advocate
Author: Trudy Ring

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