Oklahoma high-schooler Nex Benedict, a biological female who identified as...

Oklahoma high-schooler Nex Benedict, a biological female who identified as nonbinary or male, died after a confrontation in her school restroom. Credit: AP/Sue Benedict

In February, after the death of Oklahoma high schooler Nex Benedict following a confrontation in the school restroom became a national story, I wrote a column cautioning against the rush to turn this tragedy into a morality tale of anti-transgender bigotry. Benedict, 17, was a biological female who identified as either nonbinary or male. With contradictory reports on what happened, I suggested waiting for the full facts before pronouncing judgment. Now, most of the facts are in, and they tell a startling story — one that likely has little to do with gender issues.

According to the Oklahoma state medical examiner, Benedict’s death, which some activists described as a “brutal killing,” turned out to be a suicide by drug overdose. Even after this finding, many suggested that the teen's death was related to anti-transgender hostility, since the suicide took place the day after a fight with several girls who had made fun of Benedict’s clothing and had reportedly bullied Benedict before. This antagonism was also blamed on Oklahoma’s Republican-dominated legislature, which had passed laws limiting the participation of transgender athletes on girls’ and women’s high school and sports teams and requiring students to use bathrooms aligned with biological sex.

Complex debates surround single-sex athletics, single-sex spaces, and gender identity. That aside, few would dispute that kids who do not conform to gender-based norms of behavior and dress — whether they identify as trans or not — often experience peer bullying, and that more must be done to combat it.

But this particular tragedy probably had its roots in an entirely different cause. Disclosures following the release of the full medical examiner’s report, and largely ignored outside conservative media, show that notes left by Benedict did not mention school issues; vague police statements suggested that these notes mentioned personal and family problems.

Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a writer for The Bulwark, are her own.

The teenager, it turns out, was a victim of sexual abuse. Benedict's father went to prison in 2019 after pleading guilty to felony sexual assault on his child. He was released in January — though it’s not clear whether Benedict knew about it — but went back to prison for failing to register as a sex offender. According to the report, the teen’s history included “bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, self-harm (cutting).”

Benedict also experimented with different gender identities, sometimes self-identifying as a boy to both family members and peers at school, sometimes as nonbinary or gender-fluid. Despite the state’s conservative culture, media reports indicate that the school Benedict attended had a community of “gender-diverse” students and supportive teachers — which obviously doesn’t rule out the possibility of bullying by other peers.

Yet this tragic story raises other sensitive questions: Could Benedict’s gender experimentation have been a way of dealing with trauma and mental health issues? Not only conservatives but some feminists critical of what they consider extreme forms of “gender ideology” argue that the current cultural focus on transgender kids results in some kids who are not gender-dysphoric drifting toward nontraditional gender identities as a coping strategy. These feminists say that sexually abused girls may be especially likely to embrace male or nonbinary identities in the belief that femaleness equals sexual victimization.

As laudable as it is to seek a supportive climate for gender-nonconforming teens, it’s possible that some kids who desperately need better mental health and trauma interventions are getting support for gender experimentation instead. Perhaps this should be a lesson of the Nex Benedict tragedy — along with combating gender-related bullying and waiting for the facts before embracing political narratives.

Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a writer for The Bulwark, are her own.

Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a writer for The Bulwark, are her own.


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