Lawrence Indigenous, queer communities and allies mourn death of nonbinary Oklahoma teen

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Members of Native American and queer Lawrence communities joined in solidarity for a vigil in honor of Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary student from Oklahoma who died this month after suffering injuries from a fight in the girls’ bathroom at school — the bathroom state law required them to use.

Nex, of Choctaw descent, lived within the Cherokee Nation reservation and “deserved love, support and to be kept safe,” Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said in a statement.

“(Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt) labeled the situation a tragedy, but has not mentioned the bathroom law he signed into existence,” said Isaac Johnson of the Trans Lawrence Coalition.

Sunday evening’s vigil was co-hosted by Moniquè Mercurio from Art Love Collective and Trans Lawrence Coalition. 

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Moniquè Mercurio

Mercurio, Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation, is the director of operations for Art Love Collective. “This is not the first time that one of our Native children has been treated in this manner,” they said.

Mercurio said they have been asked why Nex’s story “isn’t being blown up everywhere, how come nobody’s talking about this?”

“Welcome to the MMIP movement,” they said, referring to Missing and Murdered Indigenous People. “This is something that we’ve been carrying in our hearts since the beginning of colonization.”

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times

Out of this tragedy, Mercurio hopes to see marginalized communities come together. 

“We need to start disrupting some uncomfortable silences.”

“There’s a huge gap in this community that shouldn’t be,” Mercurio said. “It feels really uncomfortable. And you all know what uncomfortability feels like.”

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times

“White sage is a very, very important medicine to our people,” said Mercurio, who showed non-Native allies in attendance how to smudge. 

Although white sage is sometimes sold in local stores, “that’s called appropriation,” they said, because Indigenous medicines are not supposed to be sold for money. “Every time we walk in to see our medicine relatives sitting on a shelf with a price tag? It feels shitty,” Mercurio said.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Christina Haswood

“When I think of Nex Benedict, I think of a little sibling,” said Rep. Christina Haswood, Diné, a Democrat from Lawrence. “We see every young person as little cousins.”

“It breaks my heart every time our young people from these intersectionalities don’t get to live a beautiful life — they’re not given that opportunity,” she said.

She told those in attendance they have allies in Topeka who are fighting every day. 

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Molly Adams / Lawrence Times

The group walked from South Park to Art Love Collective, with members of the queer community in the center of the group, surrounded and protected by allies, and led up Massachusetts Street by members of the local intertribal community. 

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Vic Secondine

“The fact that we live in a world where children are being beaten to death for living their lives as their truest selves is a terrifying thing,” said Vic Secondine, Two Spirit citizen of the Delaware Tribe of Indians. 

“I mourn for Nex, not only as a person coming from both of their communities but also as a parent who can’t even begin to comprehend the pain Nex’s family must be experiencing right now.” 

In 1990, Two Spirited Native Americans came together to create an English term to encompass their unique roles within their communities. 

“Two Spiritedness is something that belongs to us,” Mercurio said. “It hurts when non-Indigenous people claim Two Spirit because they ‘adore’ our culture.” Two Spiritedness is a community-dependent role found within Native communities; it is not an individual-centric identity that can be appropriated outside of Native communities. 

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Art in honor of Nex Benedict is displayed in the window of Art Love Collective.

Emerson Hoffzales is a nonbinary, Chicana, queer educator in Lawrence.

“It sucks that this is the only moment that we have true community with one another,” they said. “When tragedy brings us together, for some reason it makes us stronger.”

Hoffazales served as a Gay-Straight Alliance sponsor for two years — “the best years of my life,” they said. 

Nex reminds Hoffzales of the students they’ve connected with and who they continue to watch learn and grow. “It breaks my heart that Nex won’t have that. Their teachers won’t have that.”

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Rachel Reed

Rachel Reed is a records keeper with an LGBTQ organization for veterans. 

“I have to add Nex’s name to a list that I don’t enjoy keeping,” she said of the list that is read on Transgender Day of Remembrance.

“Nex was too young to be a veteran. But Nex will go on that list.”

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Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Iridescent Riffel

Iridescent Riffel, co-chair of Equality Kansas of Douglas County, said that “what has happened should have never happened.”

“They have a focus on us; they have a focus on harming our children,” she said of legislators advocating for anti-trans bills. 

Riffel encourages people to fill out the form at this link or to show up to the Kansas House Health & Human Services Committee meeting at 1:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 29. 

“In our own State Capitol this Thursday, the House Health & Human Services Committee will be hearing three proposed transphobic bills,” said Johnson, of TLC. 

House Bills 2791, 2792 and 2793 would affect gender-affirming medical care for children. 

“These public figures who claim to care about the children view them as nothing more than property to be controlled,” Johnson said in a speech co-written with Miguel Roel. “In their worldview, it is their right and obligation to indoctrinate and subordinate their children into upholding white supremacist, heteropatriarchal society, and they believe it is their right to punish, with violence, any deviation from that norm.”

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Isaac Johnson
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Mercurio (left) stands with Indigenous Community Center board members D’Arlyn Bell (center) and Sierra Two Bulls.

“I am tired of grieving in public because of tragedy after tragedy,” said Bell, Cherokee Nation. Cherokee Nation “is known for welcoming the strangers … We are inclusive,” she said. “Our solidarity across these lines means that the intersectionality of our identities means that we can come together in very unique and special ways.”
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Tweesna Rose Mills, Shoshone-Yakama-Umatilla Nations of Wyoming, Washington, and Oregon, performed her song “Estoy Ilegando a casa – I’m coming home,” which she wrote for the Cuban people of Las Terrazas.

“I couldn’t gift them my ocean song, my family song. So I made them an ocean song,” she said. “It represents finding that home in your heart … I know our hearts are hurting.”
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Molly Adams (she/her), photojournalist and news operations coordinator for The Lawrence Times, can be reached at molly (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Check out more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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