From Matthew Shepard to Nex Benedict, a History of Anti-LGBTQ+ Violence

J Pat Carter/Getty Images

This article contains subject matter that may be especially upsetting for readers, including references to suicide, violence, and the targeting of marginalized communities.

We’re now more than a month out from the death of trans Oklahoma teenager Nex Benedict, who died a day after getting beaten up by a group of older girls in the girls bathroom at their high school.

Benedict’s death occurred as the Republican Party, nationally and in its home state of Oklahoma, continues to turn persecuting transgender and nonbinary teenagers into a top legislative priority, which has been ongoing for the the past few years. In 2023, Oklahoma banned gender-affirming care for trans minors, forcing them to undergo a puberty they do not want and making them an easy target for bullying by classmates. State lawmakers have also banned trans kids from using school bathrooms consistent with their identity.

There are few people in the US who understand the pain of losing a child who experienced anti-LGBTQ+ bigotry better than Judy Shepard, the mother of Matthew Shepard, whose murder sent shockwaves across the country in 1998 and set the stage for nationwide social change in response to homophobia and homophobic violence .

Given the current environment against trans people that's been bred by Oklahoma lawmakers, Shepard says Benedict’s death did not come as a shock. A recently released medical examiner’s report determined that Benedict died by suicide, according to The Oklahoman. In a statement, Benedict's family said that the examiner did not publicly share other parts of the report, which detailed Benedict's injuries, including multiple contusions, abrasions, and hemorrhages.

“I'm horrified that it happened,” Shepard tells Teen Vogue. “In the same breath, based on all the rhetoric coming out of Oklahoma, I can't say I'm surprised that it happened somewhere there.”

Oklahoma’s superintendent of education, Ryan Walters, who rejects the very existence of trans people, reportedly often denounces teachers for pushing a “woke ideology,” including support for LGBTQ+ rights. Walters recently appointed Chaya Raichik, who runs the anti-LGBTQ+ social media account Libs of Tik Tok, to serve on the Oklahoma Library Media Advisory. (Notably, Raichik does not live in Oklahoma and, according to the Washington Post, has only visited the state once.)

Shepard believes the actions of state and community political leaders have only served to empower those who bully trans and nonbinary kids in Oklahoma schools. “[Their actions] give the haters permission to create that environment, use that language, and to harass [trans kids] because they think they are supported in that harassment,” she explains.

Commenting on the political environment at the time of her son's death in comparison to the present atmosphere, Shepard says, “In the late '90s it was the same kind of rhetoric, except it was towards lesbians and gays, not so much trans folks…. I'm not sure the politics were quite as vehement then [as they are] now.”

Back then the big political debate was over marriage equality. As former president George W. Bush approached his reelection campaign in 2004, Republicans launched a nationwide campaign to get states to pass constitutional amendments to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman in an effort to boost election turnout by social conservatives.

That effort was arguably even more successful than today’s campaign against trans rights. While the worst of the bills against trans rights — including bans on medical treatment for trans minors, bans on trans girls playing school sports, and school bathroom bills — have passed in traditionally red states, the map of bans on gay marriage extended much farther; even California banned gay marriage following the infamous Proposition 8 referendum.

If the Obergefell Supreme Court ruling that made same-sex marriage legal is overturned one day, marriage equality will stand only in 15 states and the District of Columbia.

That is the homophobic environment of the recent past, the one that killed Matthew Shepard. We have the same environment present day, but it is now directed most viciously at trans people, and it likely contributed to the death of Nex Benedict.

According to Judy Shepard, it’s the same hate: Conservatives are hoping that people’s ignorance about LGBTQ+ issues and the perceived differences between lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people will help them in one last push to take away queer rights, she says.

Where that push will stop remains to be seen. “When we lost Roe [with] the Dobbs decision, the Supreme Court vocalized the idea that we can go after things we had already thought were precedents, existing law,” Shepard continues. “I feel like they know they've lost the war and are relying on this last piece to make as much headway into taking rights away as they can, while they still have a voice. It didn't last in the mid-2000s with marriage, it isn't going to last this time either. But in the meantime, it's really hurting a lot of folks.”

Shepard blames Donald Trump’s 2016 election for kick-starting this latest cycle of hate, though I assert that the campaign against trans rights started even earlier than Trump's emergence as a national political force. For example, the HERO Act repeal in Houston, which spawned the “No men in women’s bathrooms” slogan, and North Carolina’s HB2 bathroom bill both happened before Trump took office.

The best thing young folks can do now, says Shepard, is pitch in and help defeat Trump again at the ballot box. “Trump unlocked the door, unleashed all that hate and all that rhetoric, gave that environment permission to exist, even encouraged it, and then other folks began to act the same way, speak the same way,” she explains. “[Young people] lived through the Obama years, which were so affirming to all the marginalized communities, and I don't think they want to go back. I don't think they want to be scared for their friends anymore or themselves or their family members or any of the marginalized communities.”

I’m tired of being scared of the next hateful headline and the next extremist bill to take away my community’s rights. We’ve been through this before, it’s just that the target is a little different these days. Otherwise, it is the same hate, the same contempt. We need to fight back, whether that’s through organizing in our schools and workplaces, rallying against anti-LGBTQ+ laws, or voting.

Let’s get to it.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a crisis, there is help available. You can call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988, where a trained counselor can talk to you and connect you with further resources. In addition, you can find out more about what to do if you're experiencing suicidal thoughts here.

Stay up-to-date with the politics team. Sign up for the Teen Vogue Take

Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue

Want to read more Teen Vogue LGBTQ coverage?