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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, April 20, 2024

Nex Benedict and Tufts’ next steps toward true inclusion

Following Benedict’s tragic death, the Tufts community must confront the pressing need for more accessible gender-neutral bathrooms and a truly inclusive campus environment.

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An all-gender bathroom in Olin Hall is pictured on Feb. 21, 2022.

The tragic death of Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary high schooler from Oklahoma, has ignited national conversation on the safety and rights of LGBTQ+ students. Benedict passed away on Feb. 8 following an altercation with classmates in a school bathroom. The altercation, detailed in a police-released video interview with Benedict, involved a physical confrontation initiated after Benedict retaliated against mockery from three girls.

Benedict’s death shocked Americans and prompted mourning around the country, including in Boston. On Feb. 24, the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition organized a candle vigil for Benedict “to call for justice, and stand for the sanctity of trans and nonbinary lives.” Benedict’s death should be a catalyst for a more intense discussion of the safety of LGBTQ+ youth in the wake of skyrocketing numbers of anti-trans bills.

According to the Trans Legislation Tracker, every year from 2021–23, the amount of anti-trans bills being considered in the U.S. has broken records. In 2023, the number of bills rose to over three times the previous record. Though 2024 has just begun, over 500 anti-trans bills have already been introduced. Oklahoma, Benedict’s home state, is the most prolific in writing anti-trans bills nationwide.

No matter what party maintains legislative control in a state, one should retain the fundamental right to life and the negative freedom from feeling threatened to use the bathroom, which has yet to be fully achieved. In an article published in the Journal of Adolescence, qualitative data from LGBTQ+ youth evaluated bathroom experiences as predominantly negative — ranging from being “uncomfortable (e.g., awkward, misunderstood) to being unsafe or scary.” For the legislators that pass laws against transgender individuals, it is impossible for them to imagine the everyday challenges faced by nonbinary youth challenging strict expectations of gender performance.

Tufts University has made commendable efforts to accommodate gender diversity by installing gender-neutral bathrooms across residential halls, academic buildings and other public spaces. However, whether this is enough to address the problem fully is unclear. Even in a predominantly liberal environment, safety and inclusion are not guaranteed.

A critical gap in Tufts’ approach to inclusivity is a lack of multi-stall gender-neutral bathrooms. Despite the university’s efforts to accommodate gender diversity, students may face logistical and emotional challenges due to this oversight. The lack of adequate facilities not only undermines the dignity of transgender and nonbinary students but also places them in uncomfortable — and sometimes unsafe — situations.

The story of Benedict compels us to confront the realities of being nonbinary or transgender in today’s society. It’s a stark reminder that while progress has been made, much work remains to ensure that every student feels safe and included regardless of gender identity.

Tufts University and institutions alike must take decisive action to address these gaps in inclusivity. This means increasing the number of gender-neutral bathrooms across campus and ensuring that these facilities are accessible, well-maintained and reflective of the needs of all students. Furthermore, the university should promote ongoing dialogue to foster a culture of respect, understanding and support for transgender and nonbinary individuals.

Individuals should pay attention to local regulations that may impact LGBTQ+ neighbors, friends and family. Staying educated helps people fight discrimination and act with inclusivity and equity in mind. However, engagement continues beyond awareness. Therefore, please contact your local representatives, urging them to reject harmful laws and champion protective measures. Your voice is a critical force for change. Treat everyone with decency and rights, regardless of politics. As community members, we must guarantee that everyone, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation, feels protected and respected.

The circumstances surrounding Benedict’s death challenge us to take meaningful steps toward inclusivity. Tufts University is positioned to strengthen its commitment to all students by implementing practical solutions that address these concerns. Doing so honors Benedict’s memory and affirms our dedication to a genuinely inclusive educational environment.

Ashton Gerber (they/he) contributed writing.