Hundreds mourn Nex Benedict at fiery Stonewall vigil

Attendees surround the Stonewall Inn during a vigil for Nex Benedict.
Attendees surround the Stonewall Inn during a vigil for Nex Benedict.
Donna Aceto

Hundreds of people engulfed in anger and sadness surrounded the front of the Stonewall Inn Feb. 26 during an emotional candlelight vigil to mourn the late Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old non-binary student from Oklahoma whose death has generated national outrage and calls for justice.

The vigil, organized by New Alternatives for LGBTQ+ Homeless Youth, represented just one of numerous demonstrations taking place across the nation as details continue to unfold in the wake of Benedict’s Feb. 8 death. 

Benedict died just one day after they suffered injuries in a bathroom fight at Owasso High School on the outskirts of Tulsa. Local authorities declared that an autopsy showed Benedict did not die of trauma — a claim that has been shrouded in controversy in light of the ongoing investigation and revelations that the school failed to act with urgency in the aftermath of the fight.

Further details have emerged following statements from the teen’s mother regarding the bullying her child suffered at school and the subsequent release of body camera footage showing an officer’s interview with Benedict and their mother in a medical examination room in the hours after the fight. During the interview, Benedict recalled overhearing other students saying like “why do they laugh like that,” prompting the teen to approach the students and pour water on them. Those students, Benedict said, had previously made fun of them for the way they dressed.

“They grabbed onto my hair; I grabbed onto them,” Benedict said. “I threw one of them into a paper towel dispenser. Then they got my legs out from under me, got me on the ground, and started beating the shit out of me. And then my friends tried to jump in and help, and I’m not sure, I blacked out.”

That night, Benedict went to bed with head soreness, their mother told The Independent. Benedict collapsed in the living room the following day and authorities subsequently shared an audio clip of the 911 call from Benedict’s mother. Benedict’s mother is heard on the call saying that her child “got beat up at school yesterday… I don’t know if it’s from [their] head injury because the girls that beat her up knocked her to her ground and [they] hit her head on the back of the floor…” At the time of the call, Benedict was having difficulty breathing, according to their mother, and their eyes were “rolling back.”

Benedict was transported to the St. Francis Pediatric Emergency Room, where they died. The Independent reported that Benedict’s family has ordered an independent investigation. To this point, no cause of death has been determined by the state medical examiner’s office and the local authorities have stressed that the investigation is ongoing.

In the meantime, outrage has continued to build with every passing day. Students at Benedict’s high school walked out of class on Feb. 26 in solidarity with their lost classmate and protests have flared up in several states. 

Benedict's death has brought attention to the culture of transphobia in Oklahoma and around the nation.
Benedict’s death has brought attention to the culture of transphobia in Oklahoma and around the nation.Donna Aceto

In New York, one speaker after another at the Stonewall Inn underscored the broader impact of the systemic injustices at play — the onslaught of anti-LGBTQ legislation, the culture of transphobia, and the lax response to Benedict’s death — and how those factors bred the conditions that they believe led to Benedict’s death.

“Nex was killed — but Nex was not just killed by the three students in the bathroom,” New York City-based educator Jo Macellaro said. “All of the staff who allowed that bullying to go on and who did not seek attention after the attack, you killed Nex!”

Macellaro went on to directly accuse many others of killing Benedict, including Oklahoma’s Republican governor, Kevin Stitt, who in 2022 approved a policy barring trans students from using bathrooms in accordance with their gender identity, and Chaya Raichik, a vocal anti-trans social media personality best known for creating the far-right account known as Libs of TikTok. Macellaro also connected the case to the local landscape by pointing to anti-LGBTQ voices like Maud Mauron, a member of the District 2 Community Educational Council who once sent text messages saying “there is no such thing as ‘trans kids,’” according to The 74.

“The legislative hate has now trickled into real-life hatred,” said Marti Gould Cummings, a New York City-based drag artist. “We already know there is an epidemic of Black trans women being killed in this country. We know that there are people who want us dead, so fight for their lives.”

Marti Gould Cummings.
Marti Gould Cummings.Donna Aceto

Jay W. Walker, a leader of the Reclaim Pride Coalition and Gays Against Guns, called on community members to pay close attention to the flow of dark money contributing to the anti-LGBTQ political environment, including the work of Project 2025 — an initiative led by the Heritage Foundation to consolidate power for the far right under the next Republican president. 

Many of the people who flocked to Stonewall on the evening of Feb. 26 felt a connection — one way or another — to Benedict’s case. Ken Kidd, a longtime activist with groups like Queer Nation and ACT UP, recounted his experience getting “the shit beaten out of me here in New York City” when he was just six years older than Benedict. He explained in gruesome detail how he suffered injuries to his head, jaw, and eyes.

“They tried to kill me, but they didn’t,” Kidd said. “I’m telling you that because that’s really the only difference between me and Nex. They didn’t get me. They wanted to — real bad.”

Then, with emphasis, he added: “And another difference is, that was 40 f***ing years ago, people!”

Ken Kidd.
Ken Kidd.Donna Aceto

Other speakers included actor and singer Sara Ramirez and Oklahoma native Sean Stefanik.

Individuals standing in the crowd held candles and signs dedicated to Benedict. Shoshana Cherson, a parent of a young child who was also in attendance, was motivated to go to Stonewall after hearing about Benedict’s death.

“I’m a queer mom and I have a child, so I think that adds multiple layers — being queer and also being a parent — so when a child dies, it hits home twice as hard,” Cherson told Gay City News. “Being part of the queer community and having trans and non-binary friends who I’ve been lucky enough to know as adults who did get to grow up — I just want that opportunity for all the other children.”

Benedict’s death also evoked an emotional response for Krissy Mahan, who has been queer-bashed four times and went to Stonewall to send a message that leaders must respect the lives of children in schools. Mahan stood against the fence of the adjacent Christopher Park holding a sign with a heart that simply read “NEX.” 

“As a butch dyke, every time I go into the bathroom, I have to take a moment and realize that bathrooms are a site for violence and murder historically, currently, and most likely into the future,” Mahan told Gay City News. “To think that this child was murdered at this super gender-segregated site, I’m so heartbroken that this happened and I want to do whatever I can to make sure no child in the future has to experience this kind of violence.”

At the conclusion of the demonstration, some attendees walked into Christopher Park to place flowers and candles against the fence in honor of Benedict. Another memorial display was set up just outside of the entrance of the park, where some individuals, candles in hand, sat down in silence to pay their respects.

Krissy Mahan.Donna Aceto
Oklahoma native Sean Stefanik.
Oklahoma native Sean Stefanik.Donna Aceto
Sara Ramirez.
Sara Ramirez.Donna Aceto
Jay W. Walker.
Jay W. Walker.Donna Aceto