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Wilkes-Barre vigil for transgender Oklahoma teen who died after attack

Alec Walker-Serrano speaks about trans rights and the death of Nex Benedict.
Alec Walker-Serrano speaks about trans rights and the death of Nex Benedict.

It was standing-room only at a Wilkes-Barre candlelight vigil for Nex Benedict, a transgender teen who died after an assault at their Oklahoma high school in early February. The local LGBTQ+ community shared words of sadness and anger, but also hope at downtown Wilkes-Barre’s THINK Center Thursday night.

“A pervasive culture of bullying” led to Benedict’s death, said Alec Walker-Serrano of NEPA Stands Up. It's up to communities around the country to organize and prevent more transgender youth from Benedict's fate, Walker-Serrano said.

Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary and transmasculine student, died one day after an attack in a bathroom at Owasso High School. Friends and family believe the assault was tied to Benedict’s gender identity. Officials have not publicly released an autopsy report and say an investigation into Benedict’s death is ongoing.

Students walked out of Owasso High School this week in protest of the staff's handling of Benedict's death. Walker-Serrano said direct action and contacting local representatives are key strategies for affecting pro-LGBTQ legislation that could have prevented Benedict's death.

The Wilkes-Barre vigil was the latest in memorials held around the country for Benedict.

"Love and support, knowledge and education can outweigh the hate," said Shea Hughes, an organizer with the Northeast Pa. Rainbow Alliance. Gender-affirming care for youth under age 18 is banned in Oklahoma, Hughes said. Policies restricting bathroom access for students' preferred gender identity in Okla. school may have contributed to the assault on Benedict, she said.

Representatives from the Northeast Pennsylvania Rainbow Alliance, the NEPA Pride Coalition and local universities shared resources for LGBTQ+ youth. The group Queer NEPA organizes monthly meetings for teen ages 11-17 in at the Valley Community Library Peckville. Organizers directed those interested to their Facebook page.

Seeing the wider LGBTQ community in person means a lot, said Jinx Leonard, who moved to Northeast Pa. in 2022. "I almost lost my life last year, because I thought I was alone," she said.

Leonard thanked the crowd for showing up for "a kid who lived 2,000 miles away."

Tom Riese is a multimedia reporter and the local host for NPR's All Things Considered. He comes to NEPA by way of Philadelphia. He is a York County native who studied journalism at Temple University.

You can email Tom at tomriese@wvia.org