Nex Benedict outside the family’s home in Owasso, Oklahoma, in...

Nex Benedict outside the family’s home in Owasso, Oklahoma, in December 2023. Credit: AP/Sue Benedict

Last week, a horrific story appeared in the media and made the rounds: Nex Benedict, an Oklahoma teen who was a biological female but identified as nonbinary, was dead after being beaten in a girls high school bathroom. Many reports blamed the death on Oklahoma legislation that requires school bathroom use consistent with biological sex, not gender identity. On social media, Benedict’s death was quickly labeled as not only murder but a hate crime, a tragic outcome of the bigotry promoted by anti-transgender culture-war rhetoric.

Of course, Benedict’s death at 17 is tragic. But the latest reports reveal that the story is far murkier than the initial narrative — and may not have anything to do with anti-trans hate.

For one thing, Benedict was not “beaten to death” as some claimed. Camera footage after the brief altercation shows no injuries or impairment. In a video-recorded police interview later that day, Benedict recounts initiating the fight by throwing water from a bottle at three girls (who were apparently making fun of Benedict and a friend for how they dressed and laughed); one of the girls grabbed Benedict’s hair, Benedict slammed her into a paper towel dispenser and was then thrown to the floor by the other girls. The next day, Benedict collapsed at home, was rushed to a hospital, and was pronounced dead. Preliminary autopsy findings indicate that the death was unrelated to trauma, though the final conclusion is still pending.

While there are reports that Benedict was harassed previously at school and that the girls involved in the bathroom fight were among the bullies, it’s unclear whether this was related to gender identity so much as a conflict of school cliques — “popular” kids versus “emo/goth” kids who dress in black and defy convention.

Even the issue of Benedict’s identity is unclear. One report says the teen “often” used the pronouns “they/them”; a classmate who dated Benedict now says the teen was transgender and went by “he/him.” Yet Benedict’s grandmother and legal guardian, and other family, consistently used female-specific language and the name “Dagny” until a few days after the teenager’s death when activists embraced the cause. In the police camera footage, Benedict shows no distress or annoyance at the grandmother’s use of “she/her” and “Dagny.”

Progressives blame Benedict’s death on conservatives who wage war on trans people and trans kids in particular. Conservatives and some liberals who support LGBT rights but question current progressive discourse on gender accuse progressives of politicizing a child’s death and even bullying the bereaved family into discarding the name and pronouns by which they had always called that child.

No one wants to wait for all the facts.

It’s already clear that the initial accounts were wrong. But full results of the police investigation are still pending, and until their release all commentary on the story should proceed with caution.

In the meantime, the fact remains that while everyone deserves to be treated with dignity, recent trends in trans and “gender-diverse” identities often raise complicated questions, particularly for minors — from the appropriateness of medical transition at a young age to privacy in single-sex bathrooms and locker rooms and the effects of biologically based sex disparities in sports. It isn’t hateful to acknowledge those issues. We can do it while combating bullying, demanding respect for all, and taking all school violence seriously.

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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