Column: The generation before this Oklahoma attack fought for LGBTQ+ safety in schools. Those wins aren’t enough

Candles, flowers and a photograph of a teen, with mourners in the background
A vigil in Washington, D.C., last month honored Nex Benedict, the nonbinary 16-year-old in Oklahoma who died recently after being beaten in a school bathroom.
(Astrid Riecken / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The name Pat Logue may not be familiar to many of us, but her work is.

From establishing the right of same-sex parents to adopt children to challenging the merits of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, it’s not an exaggeration to say Logue’s accomplishments as a lawyer for Lambda Legal were instrumental in changing the way society treats LGBTQ+ people. She died last week.

Opinion Columnist

LZ Granderson

LZ Granderson writes about culture, politics, sports and navigating life in America.

It is because of Logue’s work that the family of Nex Benedict may get some iota of justice. Nex was the nonbinary 16-year-old in Oklahoma who died in February one day after a group of students beat them up in a school restroom. One of Logue’s landmark victories — Nabozny vs. Podlesny in 1996 — was the first legal challenge to antigay violence in public schools.


Jamie Nabozny had been tormented for years at his Wisconsin high school for being gay. That would include being beaten up in the restroom. He sued his former district for refusing to do anything to stop the attacks. Officials were not only aware of the abuse Nabozny faced but also reportedly told him that “boys will be boys” and that he should expect the bullying because he was gay. After the verdict, Nabozny was awarded $1 million.

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More important, school districts around the country were put on notice: Every student — regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity — deserves a safe learning environment.

Nex Benedict did not get that.

Instead, the student faced an environment very similar to the one Nabozny encountered 25 years earlier. An environment our courts have already ruled was unacceptable. An environment that may have cost Nex their life.

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Police body-cam video shows Nex on a gurney after the attack in school. The details of their death the following day are murky, and an official cause of death has yet to be made public. But the history of abuse leading up to the death is clear.

Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) has already called for a federal investigation into Nex’s death. Vice President Kamala Harris posted on social media: “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.”

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This week Lambda Legal joined 350 other local, state and national organizations in an open letter calling for the removal of Oklahoma’s state superintendent of public instruction, Ryan Walters. In the letter, Walters is accused of creating an environment in Oklahoma schools hostile to LGBTQ students, which the organizations say led to the attack on Nex.


“In the weeks following Nex’s death, numerous youths have come forward to detail the rampant harassment of Oklahoma’s 2SLGBTQI+ students by peers, teachers, and administrators,” the letter reads, using an abbreviation that includes the Indigenous term “two spirit” to refer to some nonbinary individuals. “We are outraged that a climate of hate and bigotry has been not only allowed to thrive, but encouraged by the person who is responsible for education in the state.”

In addition to Walters’ anti-trans rhetoric, he appointed a conservative social media influencer to the state’s library board after that person harrassed educators online who were supportive of LGBTQ+ students. Walters dismissed the open letter as a “standard tactic of the radical left” adding, “they will stop at nothing to destroy the country and our state.”

And yet it was Walters — not the “radical left” — who appointed an anti-LGBTQ TikTok pseudo-celebrity to his state’s library board, someone who didn’t even live in Oklahoma and whose anti-gay social media posts incited bomb threats against school libraries accused of containing books that refer to gay people. Walters should never have been entrusted with overseeing the education and safety of children, and now that the mistake has been made and the damage done, I hope he will be swiftly removed and replaced by someone with an agenda to protect the learning environment.

Whether or not the state replaces him, a civil suit against the district where Nex attended school, in the Tulsa suburb of Owasso, seems likely. There’s also the question of holding those who attacked Nex accountable.

In a statement to ABC News, the victim’s family said: “The Benedicts know all too well the devastating effects of bullying and school violence, and pray for meaningful change wherein bullying is taken seriously and no family has to deal with another preventable tragedy.”

That’s why Nabozny said he sued his school district in the 1990s: to prevent other queer kids from being targeted in school the way he was.


That is also supposed to be a part of local and state administrators’ jobs. In the past, gross failures to protect queer children might have been normal and tolerated. Certainly they had few repercussions. Thanks to Logue, that part of the story has changed. Queer kids are still targeted in school. However, instead of accepting the premise of “boys will be boys,” there’s hope for accountability.