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Oklahoma school board candidate calls LGBTQ+ Pride flag ‘Indoctrination’

Called Black Lives Matter a “Marxist organization” that’s designed to “overthrow America,” and railed against Coexist bumper stickers

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Screenshot via KFOR Oklahoma’s News Channel 4

By David Badash | EDMOND, Ok, – The top vote-winning school board candidate for an Oklahoma school board seat was filmed delivering a speech attacking LGBTQ flags in the classroom while lamenting Christian flags are not allowed, calling Black Lives Matter a “Marxist organization” that’s designed to “overthrow America,” and railing against Coexist bumper stickers as being against “the Creator.”

Cheryl Williams won a plurality of votes in Tuesday night’s primary for Oklahoma City’s Edmond Public Schools District 2, with just under 37% of the votes, The Oklahoman reports. She will face the number two candidate in an April run off. Williams is a former Oklahoma Republican Party vice chair, according to NonDoc, which is operated by a journalism nonprofit:

In 2021, Williams appeared before the Edmond City Council to oppose the designation of June as Pride Month. Also in 2021, Williams called for members of the Edmond Public Schools Board of Education to resign over the inclusion of the memoir The Glass Castle on a high school reading list in the district.

“The political indoctrination in the classroom has to stop,” Williams says in an undated video believed to be from November, posted to Twitter Tuesday. “We have seen LGBT flags and paraphernalia and stuff in the classrooms. That is inappropriate. You would not allow a Christian flag in a classroom, so why are you letting a political indoctrination in the classroom with LGBT flags?”

“Coexist bumper stickers: Can somebody put their Bible on their desk? No. But they can put ‘Coexist,’ which is the opposite of the Creator. That’s wrong. Black Lives Matter: materials, shirts, masks, were everywhere in schools.”

“Black Lives Matter is a Marxist organization. The whole purpose is to overthrow America and it’s being shoved in our kids’ face. All Lives Matter. I don’t care what color you are. All. Human. Lives. Matters,” Williams screamed.

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David Badash (@davidbadashis the founder and editor of The New Civil Rights Movement, an award-winning news & opinion site.

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The preceding article was previously published by The New Civil Rights Movement and is republished with permission.

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Oklahoma

Tensions flared at monthly Okla. State Board of Education meeting

Protesters marched from the state Capitol to the state Dept of Ed building & men touting megaphones shouted slurs at the LGBTQ+ supporters

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Oklahomans advocating for LBGTQ+ rights and safer public schools march from the state Capitol to the State Department of Education meeting on Thursday. (Photo by Janelle Stecklein/Oklahoma Voice)

By Janelle Stecklein | OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. – For months, the tense atmosphere at the monthly State Board of Education meeting has been as big a part of the experience as policies themselves as Oklahomans who remained deeply divided over the state superintendent’s rhetoric have shown up to speak out.

But this month, tensions flared long before Thursday’s meeting ever started.

Accusations of stolen chairs, bullying and disparate treatment flew. Protesters marched from the state Capitol to the state Department of Education building and men touting megaphones shouted bigoted statements at the LGBTQ+ supporters gathered outside the State Department of Education building hours before the meeting began.

As one person waved a sign reading “Remove Ryan Walters from Office Now,” a man bellowed that some of those LGBTQ+ rights protesters were the reason Oklahoma needs someone like Walters to “clean up the education system.”

Some blamed the tensions on the high profile death in February of Owasso non-binary high school student Nex Benedict

A protester and counter-protester went nose-to-nose at one point, and one person briefly tried to block others from crossing through a gate on Capitol grounds.

Some blamed the tensions on the high profile death in February of Owasso non-binary high school student Nex Benedict. Benedict died by suicide a day after a fight in a high school bathroom and after reportedly being bullied.

Others said it was the result of an ongoing fight over the soul and future of Oklahoma’s public schools over the inclusion of social-emotional learning, critical race theory, and diversity, equity and inclusion policies.

Walters has accused educators of indoctrinating students. He’s opposed allowing students to use the bathrooms that match their gender, changing gender markers in school records and other policies considered trans-affirming. He and the Board of Education adopted a rule requiring schools to notify parents if a child uses different pronouns or a different gender identity at school.

Some have blamed messaging from state officials for Benedict’s bullying and death.

Ahead of the meeting, about two dozen LGBTQ+ supporters marched from the state Capitol, chanting “Justice for Nex!” and “Trans Lives Matter!”

They were followed by a handful of men making fun of their looks and sexual orientation and suggesting that they should be castrated.

“(Walters) is teaching hate,” said Larry Little, of Oklahoma City, ahead of the march. “He’s teaching ignorance. Teaching white supremacy, which is really not good for Oklahoma.”

Little said Walters isn’t listening to the message that opponents are trying to convey, but Little believes lawmakers are.

Ashley Hall, of Edmond, said she has a grandchild in second grade. When he was in first, he was asked to tell the class his preferred pronouns.

“He didn’t know what a pronoun was,” Hall said. “That’s garbage. He should be taught things like reading, math, science, history. We don’t need to know sex and gender and all this garbage that they’re pushing.”

She believes the majority of Oklahomans continue to stand behind Walters, and it’s a loud vocal minority that is pushing back against him.

“He said he was going to do this when he was running for office,” Hall said. “This isn’t anything new. It’s just the other side trying to drown us out.”

But Sean Cummings, of The Village, said in the past month, Walters’ hateful rhetoric “really blew up,” and Benedict’s death has had a huge impact on the superintendent’s popularity.

 An extension cord and zip tie are used to secure the entrance doors at the State Department of Education on Wednesday night. (Photo by Janelle Stecklein/Oklahoma Voice)

He lined up around 4 p.m. Wednesday to attend the state Board of Education meeting scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. Thursday because he wanted to be guaranteed a chance to address Walters.

Preparing for a long night as temperatures dipped close to freezing and just hours after it snowed, Cummings said he set up his belongings in an unlocked entryway that Walters’ supporters have been allowed to use for months, only to watch two state employees remove his chairs and a sign he brought with him.

“The fact that this has devolved to this, tells me we’re winning,” Cummings said.

Someone then wrapped zip ties and a long orange extension cord across the doorway to keep people out.

“This is so juvenile, I mean it’s juvenile,” Cummings said. “I would expect this out of my boys when they were about 12. Locking it with extension cords for one and taking my stuff because I’m willing to sleep out here all night.”

Someone also posted signs on the agency window, warning the dozen or so people lined up overnight ahead of the public meeting that the State Capitol Park is closed from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. That stoked fears that state troopers who patrol the Capitol grounds could show up and arrest meeting attendees. But when 11 p.m. arrived, no troopers ever showed.

A Walters spokesperson referred comment on the chairs, sign, extension cords, paperwork, fears of arrest, and hateful rhetoric accusations to the Department of Public Safety, which oversees state troopers.

DPS spokesperson Sarah Stewart said a DPS security officer put ties on the door Wednesday to secure the building because the outer doors do not lock, but there were “security issues last night and we needed to secure the building.” She said she’s not aware of troopers ever allowing anyone to camp out overnight in the entryway.

The State Capitol Park closes from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. each night, and unauthorized people are subject to removal by security personnel, she said.

“It is not our intent to arrest anyone, but it is our job to provide security for those buildings,” Stewart said.

She said she couldn’t address the chairs and sign as she doesn’t speak for the State Department of Education.

Mike Howe, of Broken Arrow, said when he stepped out of the entryway at the State Department of Education, state employees removed his chairs too.

Howe, who celebrated his birthday while standing in line for the meeting, said he was ready to be arrested because he wasn’t going to voluntarily relinquish his place in line. He arrived at 4 p.m. Wednesday.

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“The stark reality is they don’t really want us coming into the meeting, speaking because we never have anything really nice to say to Mr. Walters,” Howe said. “We’re just basically here trying to get him to be accountable for what he says and has been doing.”

Howe said two months ago, Walters’ supporters came in the middle of the night and took over the entire section out front.

“We’ve been kind of battling for months just basically for the speaking parts,” Howe said.

Connie Thayer, of Edmond, said Oklahoma ranks in the bottom 10 in education outcomes and ranks toward the bottom in student performance in math, English and reading. Walters is trying to change that trajectory.

She said the children “being indoctrinated right now” are the ones that will determine Oklahoma’s future.

“That’s why it is so important that we are here doing what we’re doing,” Thayer said.

But Candice Hoyt, of Purcell, said Walters’ hateful rhetoric is “killing our kids, causing harassment, causing bullying.

“These kids in schools are seeing the adults being bullies in harassing kids, so their kids are going to go to school and start bullying and harassing other kids that don’t fit their criteria,” Hoyt said.

Wearing a “Protect Trans Kids” T-shirt, Hoyt was among those who marched for LGBTQ+ rights. As she spoke, men hurled vile insults in the background.

She said LGBTQ+ Oklahomans don’t deserve to be harassed.

“They deserve to live a normal life just like everybody else, but we get hatred spewed at us, and we’re not doing anything wrong,” she said. “We’re just standing here. We have love in our hearts for all kids to have a safe environment to get a public education.”

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Janelle Stecklein

Janelle Stecklein is the editor of Oklahoma Voice. An award-winning journalist, Stecklein has been covering Oklahoma government and politics since moving to the state in 2014.

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The preceding article was previously published by the Oklahoma Voice and is republished with permission.

The Oklahoma Voice provides independent, nonpartisan reporting that holds officials accountable and elevates the voices of those too often sidelined by the political process. The Oklahoma Voice is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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Medical Examiner releases final autopsy on Nex Benedict’s death

“The release of today’s report does not change the fact that LGTBQ+ students in Oklahoma are not safe at school”

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Oklahoma Medical Examiner's Tulsa office at1627 Southwest Blvd. (Photo Credit: State of Oklahoma)

TULSA, Okla. – The Oklahoma Medical Examiner’s Office released the full report Wednesday on the results of its investigation into the death of Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old trans teen, whose death has become a hot button topic in ongoing national discourse over transphobic and homophobic bullying in public school settings.

Earlier this month the medical examiner’s office released Page One of the report stating that Benedict’s death was caused by an overdose of Benadryl and Prozac, and ruled the death a suicide.

Owasso Police Department Lt. Nick Boatman said in a statement to the media at the time of the release of the initial finding:  “From the beginning of this investigation, Owasso Police observed many indications that this death was the result of suicide. However, investigators did not wish to confirm that information without the final results being presented by the Oklahoma Medical Examiners Office.”

The Owasso Police Department released Body Cam footage from the interview conducted by the Owasso High School resource officer taken at the emergency room, investigating the attack on Benedict by three other female juveniles earlier that day in a school bathroom.

The District Attorney for Tulsa County, Oklahoma, Steve Kunzweiler, released a statement last week that said no criminal charges will be filed in the death of the 16-year-old Owasso High School trans student.

In part the district attorney said because the finding by the Oklahoma State Medical Examiner precluded the possibility that the death was caused directly from the physical altercation at the school the day prior to the teen’s dying.

According to the District Attorney, Benedict had written notes talking about suicide but did not reference the fight or incidents at school. Kunzweiler stated that the notes are personal to Benedict’s family and will not be released.

16-year-old trans teen Nex Benedict being recorded on Owasso Police Department body cam footage at the emergency room after he was attacked in a bathroom at Owasso High School speaking with the Owasso High School resource officer.

The report also detailed injuries sustained in the fight from the day before, including several small cuts and bruises on their face and body. Benedict also had a 4×3 inch bruise on his chest from resuscitation efforts. The Medical Examiner also found yellowing bruises on Benedict’s arms, legs, and torso that were healing before the time of the fight. The Medical Examiner’s Office also found evidence of self-inflicted wounds on the arm.

Several Oklahoma-based LGBTQ organizations responded to the release of the full autopsy report along with national LGBTQ+ advocacy groups GLAAD, the Human Rights Campaign, and the Rainbow Youth Project.

“As our community continues to grieve and remember Nex, it’s clearer than ever that everyone from Oklahoma’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters to Owasso High School staff members to the Owasso Police Department, Tulsa District Attorney, and unaccredited-since-2009 state medical examiner’s office failed to deliver justice for Nex Benedict and Nex’s loved ones,” said Nicole McAfree executive director of Freedom Oklahoma. “A harm doubled by the continued lack of respect for the tribal law enforcement who should be involved in a case that involves the death of an Indigenous person on reservation land. As we approach the end of the Oklahoma legislative session, lawmakers should take the opportunity to send a message of adamant opposition to anti-2SLGBTQ+ legislation and policies; and support for measures that enable more empathy, kindness, and compassion, not less. Nex should be alive, and the very least we can do in Nex’s memory is demonstrate our commitment to building a better world that makes it impossible for this heartbreaking tragedy to happen again,” McAfree added.

Kylan L. Durant, Oklahoma Pride Alliance President said; “Today’s news is the latest disappointing development in Nex Benedict’s tragic story. The best way to honor Nex’s memory now is by taking tangible steps to secure meaningful policies and platforms that make life better for all LGBTQ and 2STGNC+ youth. All Oklahomans deserve to live in a world that treats us with full dignity and respect, and where we can access spaces that allow us to live as our honest, authentic selves. We will never stop advocating for equality and justice in honor of Nex and too many others who left us too soon.”

The Rainbow Youth Project reported an uptick in crisis calls from Oklahoma since Benedict’s death:

  • 1,097 calls from Oklahoma in February.
  • 824 calls from Oklahoma in March so far.
  • Note that the average for the state is 357 per month.
  • Oklahoma youth reaching out to Rainbow Youth Project reported experiencing anti-LGBTQ bullying and specifically called out Superintendent Walters:
    • 82% reported bullying.
    • 62% cited anti-LGBTQ rhetoric from Walters.

More than 350 organizations signed a letter one month ago calling for the removal of Ryan Walters as Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction following his long history of leadership failures and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. For a comprehensive look at Ryan Walters’ record on LGBTQ people and issues.

“Since Nex’s death, the crisis lines at the Rainbow Youth Project continue to increase in calls and outreach from young people who feel discouraged and hopeless. It’s incumbent upon all of us to secure safety and well-being for young people, especially those who are most at risk of being bullied and singled out,” said Christopher Sederburg, Leader of the Transgender Action Committee at Rainbow Youth Project. “It’s hard enough to be a young person in the world today without worrying about doing something as simple as attending school safely. Nex’s death is a tremendous loss and we must do everything in our power to prevent similar tragedies from taking place in the future. Oklahoma State Superintendent Ryan Walters and the Oklahoma Department of Education must enact change and do right by all students.”

Sarah Kate Ellis, GLAAD President and CEO in a statement released after the report was made public said:

“This report cannot be seen as a conclusion of the investigation into the death of a teenager who should still be here today. Oklahoma’s supposed leaders must still provide answers to the public about the state-sponsored bullying by legislation, the inadequate response to violence in a school bathroom, and all the failures to keep Nex safe that continue to endanger LGBTQ and 2STGNC+ people in Oklahoma. GLAAD continues to call for an independent investigation to resolve the systemic failures that led to Nex’s death. Our hearts remain with Nex’s family, with Oklahoma’s incredible 2STGNC+ and equality advocates, and all LGBTQ youth who deserve to grow up in peace and safety.”

Kelley Robinson, president of the Human Rights Campaign, released the following statement: 

“The full report does little to fill in the gaps in information about that day or the more than a year of bullying and harassment that led up to it. It does not answer the questions of so many in Oklahoma and across the country. We continue to support the calls from Nex’s family for an independent investigation.

“Young people in Oklahoma and across the country deserve to be safe and respected in school. This includes young people who may dress differently, speak differently, or identify differently from you. What’s clear from Nex’s death, and from what we’ve heard from so many students and parents in Owasso and across the state, is that this is not the case. Instead, we have seen the very adults who should be working to protect Oklahoma’s kids actively foster the hostile environment that makes students unsafe.

“The release of today’s report does not change the fact that LGTBQ+ students in Oklahoma are not safe at school. And it does not change our continued calls for justice and accountability.  We reiterate our call for a full and complete investigation into the district,  state superintendent Ryan Walters, the Oklahoma State Department of Education, and into their response after Nex was attacked.”

Photo Credit: Owasso Public Schools, Owasso, Oklahoma.

On March 1, the U.S. Department of Education informed HRC president Kelley Robinson that the department will open an investigation in response to HRC’s letter regarding Owasso Public Schools and its failure to respond appropriately to sex-based harassment that may have contributed to the tragic death of Benedict.

This investigation was triggered by a formal complaint made last week by Robinson, who wrote to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and asked his department to use the enforcement mechanisms at its disposal to prevent similar tragedies from taking place in the future and to help hold accountable those responsible for Benedict’s tragic death.

Lance Preston, the Executive Director of Rainbow Youth Project USA, echoed his fellow non-profit CEO’s at GLAAD and HRC telling the Blade:

“In a unified effort with Human Rights Campaign and GLAAD, Rainbow Youth Project USA is calling for an independent autopsy to ensure a thorough investigation into the circumstances surrounding the youth’s death. 

Rainbow Youth Project USA, demands that educational institutions in Oklahoma and across the country take immediate action to address the pervasive issue of bullying and harassment faced by LGBTQ+ students. 

Statistics reveal that 58% of LGBTQ+ youth in Oklahoma feel unsafe at school, painting a grim picture of the challenges these individuals face on a daily basis. “Schools must be safe and inclusive environments for all students, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. It is unacceptable that a significant number of LGBTQ+ students are experiencing bullying and harassment.”

Rainbow Youth Project USA, based on recent data, received 1,097 crisis calls from Oklahoma in February alone. Nearly 86% of these callers reported instances of being bullied within the state’s schools, highlighting the urgent need for improved support and protection for LGBTQ+ youth. 

Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary student from Oklahoma, died on Feb. 8 after a fight at their high school. (Family photo)

In a conversation with the Blade on Wednesday, investigative journalist T.J. Payne reflected on the report:

“I can’t help but feel a sickness around all of it. As a trans person, reading a trans child’s autopsy is really fucked. Referring to their various insides as normal, intact, not usual. If only we described trans people the same way externally. Just like everybody else in the world trying to survive.”

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New Poll: Majority of Oklahomans want Ryan Walters removed

Walters continues to foster culture of harassment and dehumanization of LGBTQ+ youth following the death of 16-year-old Nex Benedict

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Remove Ryan Walters as Superintendent advert. (Screenshot/YouTube GLAAD)

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. – In the wake of the ongoing controversy over the suicide death of a 16-year-old trans teenager in Ossawa in Eastern Oklahoma last month, new polling released this week from Change Research and the Human Rights Campaign found a majority of Oklahoma voters disapprove of the job Ryan Walters is doing as Oklahoma’s Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The polling found that (55%) of likely 2024 Oklahoma voters including 42% who strongly disapprove–compared to just 29% of Oklahomans who approve. More than half of those polled (52%) want the state legislature to impeach and remove Walters, and another 11% believe he should be investigated.

Walters is especially unpopular among parents/guardians of K-12 public school students: 58% would like to see him impeached and removed, and 75%  say he is not a good role model for Oklahoma’s students. The survey is of 665 likely general election voters in Oklahoma, 58% of whom identify as Republican. 

LGBTQ+ advocacy groups both nationally and in the state have banded together and launched a campaign to pressure lawmakers into removing Walters. As part of that effort, the Washington D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign created RemoveWalters.com, a new website dedicated to exposing Walters’ many failures atop Oklahoma’s State Department of Education, two new reports on his record of mismanagement and hateful rhetoric.

GLAAD rolled out a new paid digital ad that will ensure Oklahomans understand how Walters is failing their kids and the state. Already, HRC’s “Remove Walters” petition has collected nearly 50,000 signatures.

The advocacy groups and HRC are focusing in a week of action next week that will focus on the failures of Walters and his counterparts in the Oklahoma legislature. These actions will take place at the Oklahoma Capitol Building, where HRC is activating its members around Freedom Oklahoma’s Lobby Day and People’s Hearing,  at the state Department of Education meeting next Thursday, and through support for Rainbow Youth Project and Freedom Oklahoma’s events in honor of Trans Day of Visibility.

HRC will also be providing on-the-ground trainings for supporters and a training for parents about how to file an official complaint for civil rights violations with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. In the weeks ahead, HRC will continue to put pressure on Walters through more in-person actions, paid ads and videos, reports, social media campaigns, and more.

Elements of the new campaign include:

The campaign comes in the aftermath of the tragic death of Nex Benedict (he/they), a 16-year-old nonbinary student of Choctaw heritage, who died one day after a brutal assault in a high school bathroom, and after a year of experiencing harassment and bullying at their Owasso, Oklahoma, high school. Nex’s death has been mourned by people across Oklahoma and the country, and exposed Walters’ long history of discriminatory and bullying behaviors. It has also brought to light Walters’ tenure of incompetence, scandal, and mismanagement running Oklahoma’s public schools system–with Oklahoma K-12 education currently ranking 49th in the country under his “leadership.”

“Ryan Walters is a cruel and self-serving politician who, our polling shows, has lost the trust of Oklahomans. This should come as no surprise–his tenure reeks of anti-LGBTQ+ bullying, harassment and corruption. His record betrays the very essence of education. He has to go,” said HRC President Kelley Robinson. “Working in tandem with our partners on the ground who live through Walters’ dangerous tenure each and every day, HRC will hold Walters accountable for his actions and ensure all Oklahomans know how he is failing them and their children. Oklahomans deserve so much better than Ryan Walters.”

RemoveWalters.com, and its “Walters Watch” feature, will serve as a hub for the campaign and expose Walters’ mishandling of the tragedy surrounding Nex Benedict’s death, his past and continued attacks on 2SLGBTQI students and staff in Oklahoma, his appointment of extremists like LibsOfTikTok to state positions, his misappropriation of funds and campaign finance violations, and the overall state of the Oklahoma public school system.

The Remove Walters campaign is the latest step HRC is taking to hold Walters accountable for his failed leadership and secure Justice for Nex:

  • In response to a letter from HRC, the U.S. Department of Education informed HRC’s Kelley Robinson on March 1 that it would open an investigation into Owasso Public Schools and its failure to respond appropriately to sex-based harassment that may have contributed to Nex’s death. HRC has also asked the U.S. Department of Education to open an investigation into Ryan Walters and the Oklahoma State Department of Education.
  • Robinson also wrote to Attorney General Merrick Garland asking the U.S. Department of Justice to begin an investigation into Nex’s death, and she wrote to Dr. Margaret Coates, superintendent of the Owasso school district in Oklahoma, calling for the superintendent to take advantage of the Human Rights Campaign’s Welcoming Schools program — the most comprehensive bias-based bullying prevention program in the nation to provide LGBTQ+ and gender inclusive training and resources — and offering to bring experts to the district immediately.
  • Last month, HRC also joined with more than 350 national, state, and local organizations in an open letter to Oklahoma legislative leadership urging the immediate removal of Walters and an investigation into the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

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Tulsa, Oklahoma DA says NO charges in death of Nex Benedict

DA stands by coroner’s finding but in regards to the fight: “From all of the evidence gathered, this fight was an instance of mutual combat”

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Tulsa County, Oklahoma Republican District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler being interviewed regarding another issue. (Screenshot/YouTube)

TULSA, Okla. – The District Attorney for Tulsa County, Oklahoma, Steve Kunzweiler, released a statement Thursday afternoon that said no criminal charges will be filed in the death of 16-year-old Owasso High School trans student Nex Benedict last month.

According to Kunzweiler’s statement, based on all the evidence presented, he acknowledged the finding by the Oklahoma State Medical Examiner that Benedict died from an overdose of Benadryl and Prozac and the cause was suicide. According to the District Attorney, Benedict had written notes talking about suicide but did not reference the fight or incidents at school.

Kunzweiler stated that the notes are personal to Benedict’s family and will not be released.

Addressing the fight in one of the school’s restrooms the day with a group of three other students prior to Benedict’s death on February 8, which had led to the hospitalization and the ongoing controversy Kunzweiler noted:  

“Regarding the fight which took place at the Owasso High School, the combatants were all under 18 years of age. Consequently, if charges were justified, those charges would be handled as a delinquent child cause of action in a juvenile court of law. Based upon the investigation of the Owasso Police Department, I am in agreement with their assessment that the filing of juvenile charges is not warranted,” he said adding:

“From all of the evidence gathered, this fight was an instance of mutual combat. I do not have a reasonable belief that the State of Oklahoma could sustain its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt if charges were presented for prosecution.”

In his statement, Kunzweiler said that the investigation stated that the incident was less than 60 seconds long and started after some girls made comments about how Benedict laughed and Benedict poured water on the girls.

Kunzweiler’s further noted that the students were serving in-house suspension and didn’t know each other before that week, but, had been antagonizing each other, although no student reported it to teachers or staff.

The District Attorney however noted that the family still has civil options open to them writing:

“Finally, whether or not individuals may choose to seek legal counsel for remedies in the civil realm of the court system is a decision best left to them. The scope of those inquiries are not as limited as the question of criminal/ delinquent conduct which I was asked to address in this case.”

Nex Benedict being interviewed by the school resource officer shown on this body cam screenhot in the emergency room on Feb. 7, 2024, a day before Benedict died from what the Tulsa office of Oklahoma State Medical Examiner has ruled a suicide.

Lance Preston, the Founder and Executive Director of the Rainbow Youth Project, a national organization dedicated to supporting LGBTQ+ youth, in an emailed statement to the Blade wrote:

“In a controversial move that has sparked outrage within the LGBTQ+ community, the Tulsa County District Attorney has declined to press charges against the students involved in the assault on Nex Benedict at Owasso High School. This decision has sent a chilling message that LGBTQ+ students may not be afforded the same level of protection and justice as their peers.

Following the announcement, the Rainbow Youth Project has been flooded with calls to its crisis center from concerned young people and outraged parents. The decision not to pursue charges against the perpetrators has created a sense of fear and insecurity among LGBTQ+ students and their families, who now question their safety in Oklahoma schools.

The decision not to hold the assailants accountable has raised serious concerns about the prioritization of LGBTQ+ safety in Oklahoma’s educational institutions. State Senator Tom Woods’ derogatory remarks towards LGBTQ+ individuals only serve to compound the hostile environment faced by these marginalized students.

Rainbow Youth Project has vowed to continue advocating for the safety and rights of LGBTQ+ youth in the wake of this troubling development. “It is essential that we stand together to protect and support LGBTQ+ students in our schools. No young person should have to fear for their safety simply because of who they are,” stated Preston.

As the community grapples with the implications of the district attorney’s decision, the need for increased awareness and support for LGBTQ+ students has never been more critical. Organizations like Rainbow Youth Project play a crucial role in providing a safe space for LGBTQ+ youth and advocating for a more inclusive and accepting society.”

Sarah Kate Ellis, the President & CEO of GLAAD told the Blade in an emailed statement:

“Time and time again, leaders in Oklahoma have showed that they don’t value Nex’s life, or the lives of other Indigenous and 2STGNC students. Everyone from  Superintendent Walters and Owasso High School to the unaccredited-since-2009 state Medical Examiner’s Office, the District Attorney, and Owasso Police Department have failed Nex Benedict and failed us all. It is critical that an independent investigation is completed and the truth about what happened to Nex, and what all marginalized youth in Oklahoma schools endure, is brought to light. We will never stop seeking justice for Nex and we will never stop holding leaders accountable to serving their communities fairly and with compassion.”

Reaction also came from the President of the Human Rights Campaign Kelley Robinson who stated:

“Nex was failed by their school, and failed by every elected official who allowed a culture of bullying and harassment to grow unchecked. We reiterate our call for a full and complete investigation into the district, into state superintendent Walters and the OSDE, and into the response after Nex was attacked. We won’t stop until there is justice for Nex and for all kids – in Oklahoma and beyond.”

Read the DA’s full statement here:

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LGBTQ groups rally in Oklahoma, demand justice for Nex Benedict

“Bullying is hurtful and cruel, and no one should face the bullying that Nex did. Parents & schools must take reports of bullying seriously”

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On the steps of the Oklahoma State Capitol Thursday, LGBTQ+ advocacy groups, allies, and community members came together to demand justice for Nex Benedict (Photo by Bryan Paddack, Rural Oklahoma Pride)

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. –  On the steps of the Oklahoma State Capitol Thursday, LGBTQ+ advocacy groups, allies, and community members came together to demand justice for Nex Benedict, the trans-nonbinary Oklahoma teen whose death last month after enduring months of bullying sparked national conversations and outrage.

Those in attendance at the rally/demonstration also called for the removal of Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters. “Walters’ public statements against LGBTQ+ young people, especially transgender and gender nonconforming youth, foster a toxic educational environment that is disrespectful, intolerant, and often dismissive of bullying reports for LGBTQ+ students statewide,” a spokesperson told the Blade.

Photo by Lance Preston

Led by Rural Oklahoma Pride and joined by organizations such as the Diversity Center of Oklahoma, Rainbow Youth Project, and the Human Rights Campaign, the rally sent a clear message of solidarity and action on behalf of LGBTQ+ youth across the state.

High school students from Classen School of Advanced Studies orchestrated a walk-out to stand in support of Nex Benedict and to demand accountability from government officials and walked the several blocks from the school to join the rally.

Organizers told the Blade that the students’ presence “added a poignant and spirited energy to the demonstration, showcasing the unwavering commitment of the younger generation to advocate for change.”

“We are here today to demand justice for Nex and to make our voices heard,” said Bryan Paddack of Rural Oklahoma Pride. “The time for action is now, and we will not rest until justice is served and Secretary Walters is held accountable for his actions.”

As the crowd of a couple hundred individuals began a march around the capitol building, their chants echoed through the streets, calling for an end to the injustices faced by Nex and all LGBTQ+ youth in Oklahoma’s schools and the LGBTQ+ community at large.

According to a spokesperson for the Rainbow Youth Project, “the urgent and impassioned pleas for change resonated with the gathered supporters and passersby alike, underscoring the critical need for reform and protection of vulnerable youth.”

Meanwhile, just a few blocks away at an Oklahoma City hospital, a Rainbow Youth Project crisis counselor has been assisting the family of a 14-year-old nonbinary high school student hospitalized in the intensive care unit following a suicide attempt just 24 hours earlier.

“While this child’s life hangs in the balance, this tragedy is yet another stark reminder of the real and devastating consequences of bullying and discrimination,” Lance Preston, the founder and CEO of the Rainbow Youth Project said. ” Nex Benedict and this child serve as poignant examples of the urgent need for systemic change and support for queer youth across the nation,” he added.

“We are deeply saddened by the tragic loss of Nex Benedict and the countless others across the country who have suffered from bullying. Every student deserves to feel safe and supported in their learning environment,” said Christopher Sederburg, Leader of the Transgender Action Committee at Rainbow Youth Project USA. “It is unacceptable that Secretary Ryan Walters and his actions have enabled an atmosphere of hostility and fear for LGBTQ+ students in Oklahoma.”

Photo by Lance Preston

Parents, advocates, and activists are calling on schools across Oklahoma to take a more proactive approach in addressing the growing crisis of bullying among LGBTQ+ youth. According to the 2022 HRC LGBTQ+ Youth Survey, a staggering 58% of LGBTQ+ youth living in Oklahoma feel unsafe at school, highlighting the urgent need for immediate action.

The survey also revealed that only 54% of LGBTQ+ youth in Oklahoma believe that teachers or staff at their school genuinely care about them, a stark contrast to the national average of 71%. This disparity underscores the need for Oklahoma schools to create more inclusive and supportive environments for LGBTQ+ students.

The Rainbow Youth Project reported a significant increase in crisis contacts from Oklahoma in February 2024, with a total of 1,097 calls received. Shockingly, 86% of those callers reported being bullied at schools across the state and 64% cited the harmful anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric of Secretary of Public Instruction Ryan Walters as part of the reason for their distress.

Preston pointed out that considering these disturbing findings, advocates are urging schools to implement comprehensive anti-bullying policies, provide training for staff on LGBTQ+ issues, and create safe spaces for students to seek support and assistance. “It is essential for schools to prioritize the safety and inclusion of all students to create a positive and accepting learning environment for everyone,” Preston said.

Kris Williams from the Oklahoma City Diversity Center expressed grave concern over the lack of support for LGBTQ+ students in Oklahoma schools. “It is disheartening to see such high levels of insecurity and fear among LGBTQ+ youth in our state,” said Williams. “Schools must prioritize the safety and well-being of all students, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

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President Joe Biden issued a statement on Thursday about the death of Benedict, the trans-nonbinary Oklahoma teen whose death last month after enduring months of bullying sparked national conversations about anti-LGBTQ discrimination in the state and across the country.

[…] “Every young person deserves to have the fundamental right and freedom to be who they are, and feel safe and supported at school and in their communities. Nex Benedict, a kid who just wanted to be accepted, should still be here with us today,” the president said.

“Nonbinary and transgender people are some of the bravest Americans I know. But nobody should have to be brave just to be themselves. In memory of Nex, we must all recommit to our work to end discrimination and address the suicide crisis impacting too many nonbinary and transgender children. Bullying is hurtful and cruel, and no one should face the bullying that Nex did. Parents and schools must take reports of bullying seriously,” Biden also noted.

On X (formerly Twitter) Oklahoma’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Walters responded and reacted to the statement by President Biden.

Walters accused the president of lying and exploiting the tragedy of Benedict’s suicide for political gain.

Rainbow Youth Project’s Preston reacted saying:

“The President puts out a statement basically saying that bullying in schools is wrong and the OK Superintendent of Education replies with this? Ryan Walters doesn’t care that a child is dead and that 58% of LGBTQ+ students don’t feel safe in his schools.”

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Medical examiner rules death of Oklahoma trans teen a suicide

16-year-old Nex Benedict died in an apparent suicide after a severe incident of physical assault and longtime bullying

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16-year-old Nex Benedict died in an apparent suicide after a severe incident of physical assault and longtime bullying. (Family photo)

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. – The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has released part of the results of the investigation into the February 8 death of Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old transgender teen, who had experienced bullying at his high school culminating in an assault that made national headlines.

Tulsa media outlet KOTV/KQCW News 6 reported Wednesday afternoon that the Medical Examiner’s report disclosed that Benedict died by suicide and did not die as a direct result of trauma from the physical altercation at Owasso High School in Owasso, Okla. on February 7, 2024.

Page 1 of the report states that Benedict’s death was caused by an overdose of Benadryl and Prozac. The full medical examiner’s report will be released on 03/27/2024, KOTV/KQCW News 6 also reported.

“From the beginning of this investigation, Owasso Police observed many indications that this death was the result of suicide,” Owasso Police Department Lt. Nick Boatman said in a statement to the media. “However, investigators did not wish to confirm that information without the final results being presented by the Oklahoma Medical Examiners Office.”

Boatman would not confirm to media outlets whether or not investigators found a suicide note from Benedict.

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After a year of being bullied over his trans identity, Benedict was involved in a fight in a bathroom in early February in which three girls allegedly beat him. Police and media reports stated that Nex’s head was “banged into the floor.” Nex’s mother substantiated the reports in an interview with British media outlet The Independent. The school reportedly did not call an ambulance for the teen and he was taken to hospital by his mother and was discharged from the hospital later that evening. 

“As an organization dedicated to supporting and empowering LGBTQ+ youth, we are truly saddened by the loss of Nex Benedict,” Lance Preston, Executive Director at Rainbow Youth Project USA told the Blade. “It is heartbreaking to see a young life cut short due to the harmful effects of bullying. Our hearts go out to Nex’s family and loved ones during this difficult time.” 

“It is crucial for schools to recognize the profound impact of bullying on the mental health and well-being of students,” Preston noted. “We call on educators, administrators, and policymakers to prioritize the implementation of anti-bullying measures and support systems that create a culture of acceptance and respect within educational institutions.” 

“The loss of Nex Benedict serves as a stark reminder of the devastating consequences of unchecked harassment, bullying and discrimination across the nation,” Preston added.

Owasso Police released body camera footage, school security camera footage, and 911 calls from their investigation into the incident.

The public response to Benedict’s death has been overwhelming, with thousands of messages to police, the school, and members of the media, KOTV/KQCW News 6 noted.

In a phone call Wednesday afternoon, Shannon Minter, the Legal Director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) said: ”This news is crushing and must be a wake up call to our country: enough is enough. The political targeting of transgender people is deadly and must be stopped. It is past time to hold the public officials and leaders who are promulgating hatred and lies about vulnerable young people and their families fully accountable for the terrible harm they are causing.”

In an emailed statement, GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis said:

“There is nothing in this one page document to explain why the medical examiner checked a box. Media must have learned by now that they need to continue to question what they get from law enforcement and government entities in Oklahoma that have so far failed to protect vulnerable students and responsibly provide any information that is critical for student safety. Nex Benedict’s family and the entire state of Oklahoma deserve far more answers and accountability from those charged with keeping Nex and all youth safe.

“What remains true: Nex Benedict and all LGBTQ and Two Spirit, Transgender, and Gender Nonconforming (2STGNC+) youth deserve a world that fights for them to be themselves, to be free from state-sponsored bullying and discrimination. All media reporting on Nex’s death and the behavior of public officials before, during and after Nex’s death, must continue to demand accountability from state leaders about how they are working to protect all youth from harm and when they will stop their relentless attacks proven to cause harm. 

Our hearts remain with Nex’s family and all who grieve this horrific loss and the unacceptable violence that preceded it. It remains imperative that school environments reject bullying in all its forms.”

Kelley Robinson, the President of the Human Rights Campaign told the Blade: “As parents, we send our kids to school expecting that they will be safe and cared for. Nex was failed by so many and should still be here today. We hold their family in our hearts as they grapple with the devastating reality that their beloved child, a teen with a bright future, is no longer making this world a brighter place. Nex died one day after being beaten unconscious in a school bathroom, and following more than a year of bullying and harassment at school. This is heartbreaking. And we have heard from so many parents and students that this culture of bullying and harassment is both pervasive at Owasso Public Schools and that many within the school had actual knowledge that it was occurring and took no steps to fix it. We reiterate our call for a full and complete investigation. Young people in Oklahoma and across the country deserve to be safe and respected at school.”

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United in love for Nex, a community neutralizes anti-queer haters

Westboro Baptist Church showed up to express their unique brand of anti-LGBTQ+ animus and hate Wednesday in front of Owasso High School

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Over 400 people, including members of Parasol Patrol, Rainbow Youth Project, Veterans for Equality, Defense of Democracy, Diversity Center of Oklahoma, and concerned citizens, gathered to show their support for the queer youth of Owasso, Okla. (Photo Credit: Lance Preston)

OWASSO, Okla. – Less than a dozen members of the Topeka, Kansas-based religious fringe group, Westboro Baptist Church, showed up to express their unique brand of anti-LGBTQ+ animus and hate Wednesday in front of Owasso High School in the ongoing wake of the tragic death of 16-year-old Nex Benedict, a non-binary student, who died after a beating in a school restroom last month.

Holding up signs with disparaging messages and hateful rhetoric about LGBTQ+ people, the Westboro protestors had initially arrived in front of the Owasso Public Schools District’s main administration building and Educational Services Center at around 1:30 p.m. and then departed for the nearby high school, arriving at around 2:30 p.m. Wednesday afternoon.

Photo Credit: Lance Preston

The Westboro group was cordoned off in front of the high school’s main entrance way surrounded by multiple enforcement agencies who were on hand. These included officers from the Owasso police department, Oklahoma Highway Patrol troopers, Rogers County Sheriff’s Office deputies, and the Cherokee Nation’s Marshal Service- the city is adjacent to the reservation.

Photo Credit: Lance Preston

Across the street from the high school located at 8800 N 129th E Avenue, LGBTQ+ affirming counter protestors united in what one organizer told the Blade was a powerful display of unity and love.

Over 400 people, including members of Parasol Patrol, Rainbow Youth Project, Veterans for Equality, Defense of Democracy, Diversity Center of Oklahoma, and concerned citizens, gathered to show their support for the queer youth of Owasso.

Lance Preston, the founder and director of Rainbow Youth Project, a LGBTQ+ advocacy organization told the Blade via phone that the mission of the groups present were to spread messages of love and acceptance. “The community stood strong and sent a clear message that love will always prevail over hate,” Preston said.

Despite the plans of the Westboro group to spend 30 minutes protesting outside the high school, they cut their demonstration short after just about 15 minutes. The overwhelming presence of supportive community members and the assistance of law enforcement ensured that the event remained peaceful and safe for all involved.

Photo Beck Bevan

Preston expressed gratitude for the collaborative effort to maintain peace during the protest, stating, “law enforcement officers were amazing today and we appreciate them being here from a wide-variety of agencies.” He added “The show of unity and support from the community was a powerful testament to the resilience and compassion of the people of Owasso.”

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“The swift and effective response to the presence of the Westboro group highlighted the strength of the community in coming together to protect and uplift its youth.,” Preston said adding: “By choosing love and solidarity over hate and division, the residents of Owasso demonstrated their commitment to creating a safe and inclusive environment for all.”

Photo Beck Bevan

During the course of the counter-protest, the young man shown in the picture above holding the sign that read “Give us our roses while we’re still here” had approached Preston.

“I did not know at the time but he is one of the kids who called our crisis hotline,” Preston told the Blade. “He came up to me and two of my staffers asking us, “you’re with Rainbow Youth Project in Indiana?” When we responded in the affirmative he told us— “Thank you so much, your organization’s hotline is one of the reasons I’m still here.”

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HRC triggers U.S. Dept. of Ed investigation of Owasso Schools

HRC’s letter regarded Owasso Public Schools failure to respond to harassment that may have contributed to the death of Nex Benedict

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Photo Credit: Owasso Public Schools, Owasso, Oklahoma.

WASHINGTON — On Friday the U.S. Department of Education informed Human Rights Campaign (HRC) President Kelley Robinson that the department will open an investigation in response to HRC’s letter regarding Owasso Public Schools and its failure to respond appropriately to sex-based harassment that may have contributed to the tragic death of Nex Benedict (he/they), a 16-year-old non-binary teen of Choctaw heritage.

This investigation was triggered by a formal complaint made last week by Robinson, who wrote to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and asked his department to use the enforcement mechanisms at its disposal to prevent similar tragedies from taking place in the future and to help hold accountable those responsible for Nex’s tragic death.

The letter from the Department of Education reads: “the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (OCR), is opening for investigation the above-referenced complaint that you filed against the Owasso Public Schools (the District). Your complaint alleges that the District discriminated against students by failing to respond appropriately to sex-based harassment, of which it had notice, at Owasso High School during the 2023-2024 school year,” said Kelley Robinson, president of the Human Rights Campaign.

“Nex’s family, community, and the broader 2SLGBTQI+ (two spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex+)  community in Oklahoma are still awaiting answers following their tragic loss. We appreciate the Department of Education responding to our complaint and opening an investigation–we need them to act urgently so there can be justice for Nex, and so that all students at Owasso High School and every school in Oklahoma can be safe from bullying, harassment, and discrimination,” Robinson added.

According to the letter, OCR is opening the following issues for investigation:

  • Whether the District failed to appropriately respond to alleged harassment of students in a manner consistent with the requirements of Title IX.
  • Whether the District failed to appropriately respond to alleged harassment of students in a manner consistent with the requirements of Section 504 and Title II.

HRC sent a second letter to the Department asking it to promptly begin an investigation into the Oklahoma State Department of Education, as well as the current State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Ryan Walters. In addition:

  • Robinson wrote to Attorney General Merrick Garland asking the Department of Justice to begin an investigation into Nex’s death.
  • Robinson wrote to Dr. Margaret Coates, superintendent of the Owasso school district in Oklahoma, calling for the superintendent to take advantage of the Human Rights Campaign’s Welcoming Schools program— the most comprehensive bias-based bullying prevention program in the nation to provide LGBTQ+ and gender inclusive training and resources — and offering to bring experts to the district immediately.

The full text of the letter from the Department of Education in response to HRC can be found here.

The full text of the initial letter from HRC President Kelley Robinson to Secretary Cardona can be found here.

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LGBTQ+ groups call for removal of Okla. education official

Walters appointed anti-transgender activist Chaya Raichik to serve on the Oklahoma library board “despite her not living in Oklahoma

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Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters with anti-LGBTQ+ extremist Libs Of TikTok creator Chaya Raichik on Feb. 6. (Raichik/selfie on Waters Okla. State Facebook Page)

WASHINGTON – A coalition of more than 350 advocacy groups issued a letter on Wednesday calling for the removal of Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters along with a federal investigation into the “actions and policies” by the Oklahoma Department of Education that have facilitated a “culture where rampant harassment of 2SLGBTQI+ students has been allowed to go unchecked.”

The letter comes as the death of nonbinary teenager Nex Benedict earlier this month, a day after they were allegedly assaulted in a school restroom and after enduring months of bullying, has drawn national attention to, and scrutiny of, the state’s policies targeting the rights of LGBTQ+ Oklahomans, particularly youth.

An investigation into the circumstances surrounding Benedict’s death is ongoing. LGBTQ+ advocates including Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson have called for independent probes by the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education.

“Superintendent Ryan Walters is responsible for fostering a culture of violence and hate,” the letter argues. “Just a month ago, he passed an emergency rule to prevent an Oklahoma teen who was fearful of being bullied from changing his gender on school files,” and he also “called for the firing of a principal who performed in drag on weekends, which led to violent threats against the educator.”

Additionally, the letter notes, Walters appointed anti-transgender activist Chaya Raichik, creator of the anti-LGBTQ+ social media account Libs of TikTok, to serve on the Oklahoma library board “despite her not living in Oklahoma and having no credentials for the position.” 

Per a press release from GLAAD, “Signers span Oklahoma-specific civil rights groups, churches and faith denominations, legal groups and unions, and more, to national education and youth advocacy groups, civil rights organizations, women’s rights leaders and equality groups in neighboring states.”

Among the national nonprofit organizations are the American Association of School Librarians, the Center for American Progress, GLAAD, GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), GLSEN, HRC, the Interfaith Alliance, It Gets Better, Lambda Legal, the Matthew Shepard Foundation, the Movement Advancement Project, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the National Center for Transgender Equality, the National Education Association, the National LGBTQ Task Force, the National Women’s Law Center, PFLAG National, the Rainbow Youth Project USA, the Trevor Project and the Transgender Law Center.

The release notes they were joined by public figures who include Kristin Chenoweth, Demi Lovato, Cynthia Nixon, Jonathan Van Ness, Tommy Dorfman, Alok, Peppermint, Emma Roberts, Amy Schneider and K.D. Lang.

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Oklahoma state senator says LGBTQ+ people are “filth”

The Tahlequah Daily Press newspaper reported several audience members clapped, while others appeared shocked

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Oklahoma Republican state Sen. Tom Woods (Screenshot/YouTube)

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – Republican state Sen. Tom Woods took part in a public legislative panel forum Friday Feb 23rd during which the panel was asked by a constituent about the death of Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old non-binary Owasso High School student, who had been attacked and beaten in a school bathroom.

The Oklahoma Voice reported that Cathy Cott, a 64-year-old semi-retired resident, asked the lawmakers why the Legislature had such an obsession with the LGBTQ+ citizens of the state, what people do in their personal lives and how they raise their children, according to the Tahlequah Daily Press, which first reported the remarks.

When she got no answer, she asked about the bills targeting the LGBTQ+ community.

“Why does the Legislature have such an obsession with the LGBTQ citizens of Oklahoma and what people do in their personal lives and how they raise their children?” Cott asked.

Woods replied, “We are a Republican state – supermajority – in the House and Senate. I represent a constituency that doesn’t want that filth in Oklahoma. You know we are a religious state. We are going to fight and keep that filth out of the state of Oklahoma because we’re a Christian state”

The Tahlequah Daily Press also reported several audience members clapped, while others appeared shocked.

Cott said in an interview with Oklahoma Voice that she was not surprised by Woods’ answer.

Cott said she has many family and friends who are LGBTQ+.

“I have dealt with other state representatives and senators and been to lobby day and tried to advocate for the LGBTQ+ community when I can so I am used to it,” she said. “They haven’t said anything like this to me before where they describe citizens of the state as filth, but they let me know they just don’t care.”

She said Woods’ remarks absolutely contribute to the hostile climate in the state for the LGBTQ+ community.

Prior to his election to his seat to represent Oklahoma’s 4th Senate district in 2022, Woods was a farmer and business owner. He ran a dairy farm, feed store, and trucking company. His district runs along the eastern border of Oklahoma from West Fort Smith, Okla. to Grove, and runs into Tahlequah.

Another Republican, state Sen. Dewayne Pemberton, a former teacher, told the audience he’s always seen educators’ jobs as “to educate students, not indoctrinate students.”

In a statement to the Blade, Brandon Wolf, the National Press Secretary for the Human Rights Campaign said:

The only “filth” here is this vile statement from a sitting state senator. This is the kind of hate speech that incites deadly violence against our communities. This is what we mean when we say that the flames of dehumanization and hate have been fanned in Oklahoma. Enough is enough. There needs to be accountability for this climate of hate — and the damage being done.”

Sarah Kate Ellis, the CEO and president of GLAAD told the Blade:

“Enough is enough. Oklahoma’s Republican leaders are continuing to nurture a climate of anti-LGBTQ animus, modeling disgusting anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, questioning our very humanity, attacking marginalized youth and educators who support them, and improperly handling bullying and assaults at school. Leaders with a bully pulpit have the power to inspire empathy and understanding, but they also have the power to inspire hate, bullying, and physical attacks. These so-called leaders fomenting hate, Sen. Tom Woods, Superintendent Ryan Walters, Governor Kevin Stitt are failing Oklahoma’s youth in dangerous and myriad ways.”

There has been national outage in reaction to the death of Benedict. Vice President Kamala Harris, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, House Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) are among those in leadership decrying the death and the political climate that LGBTQ+ advocacy groups say have been contributing factors.

Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson has called for federal investigations by the U.S. Justice and Education Departments.

In her social media post, the Vice-President said: “My heart goes out to Nex Benedict’s family, friends, and their entire community. To the LGBTQI+ youth who are hurting and are afraid right now: President Joe Biden and I see you, we stand with you, and you are not alone.”

Republican Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt who in 2022 signed an anti-trans bill prohibiting students from using public school restrooms that do not match the sex listed on their birth certificates, wrote in his statement that “our hearts go out to Nex’s family, classmates, and the Owasso community. The death of any child in an Oklahoma school is a tragedy — and bullies must be held accountable.”

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