How queer Indigenous youth are finding safety and support after Nex Benedict’s death

In the summer of 2015, an 8-year-old Choctaw child named Twelve walked in their first Two-Spirit LGBTQ Pride parade, recognizing Native people with a male and female spirit within them. They wore their hair in braids and a black suit, their mother and auntie by their side. Out and proud adults waved hello to Twelve from their colorfully decorated floats. The streets of Oklahoma City were filled with music, dancing and drag performances. It was a celebration that seemed like a step toward a future of acceptance for Oklahoma’s Indigenous queer community.  

“That memory sticks in my mind — seeing someone that young and seeing loving parents be so supportive,” said Auntie Sage, youth leader at Cousins, a group for queer Indigenous youth in the state. “I had not seen that in my lifetime.” 

Nine years later, queer and Two-Spirit youth in Oklahoma have witnessed the introduction of more than 50 bills targeting LGBTQ people this year alone — more than any other state — from bans on gender-affirming health care to penalizing public school employees for asking a student their pronouns. 

In addition, LGBTQ communities continue to reel from the death of Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old transgender student who lived on a Cherokee reservation in Oklahoma and reportedly faced bullying over their gender identity. 

“With all these anti-LGBTQ bills going on right now, it is very dangerous and it is a very sad time for Oklahoma,” Auntie Sage said. 

Today, Twelve is a member of Cousins, which has been offering a sanctuary for queer Indigenous youth in a time of rising anti-LGBTQ hostility. Through outdoor activities, out-of-state trips, theater shows, monthly counseling, group talks and mentor pairing, the group is cultivating a community. 

“Cousins is a place of education, fun, community, support, love and all this good stuff,” Twelve said. “But at the end of the day, it’s also a safe space for kids who need it.”

Reeling from the death of ‘our relative’

Sarah Adams, the mother of Twelve, and Kendra Wilson Clements — both of whom are Choctaw and Two-Spirit — co-founded Cousins in 2022 after observing a lack of support systems in Oklahoma for queer Indigenous youth. That year, U.S. lawmakers proposed a record 238 bills that would limit the rights of Two-Spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and/or questioning (2SLGBTQ) Americans, including religious exemptions to discriminate against queer people, and limits on trans people’s ability to play sports and receive gender-affirming health care.

“We wanted it to be a safe place for us to be able to celebrate what it is to be LGBTQ in the Indigenous community,” Adams said. “When you feel safe, then you can be exactly who you are. You can remove all those masks that you put on from your day to day.”

Adams and Clements began reaching out to local queer leaders to find mentors and advocates for queer Indigenous youth. Mentors can share their experiences, show kids they are not alone and let them know they are supported.

“We want [our youth] to be strong. We want them to be inspired,” said Auntie Sage. “And we want them to know what it looks like to be visible and out and proud.”

Through word of mouth, the group has become home to over a dozen youth ages 12 to 22, representing numerous tribes. With the help of donations, grants and volunteers, the group goes hiking, takes self-defense classes and attends virtual meet-ups. 

When Benedict died in February, it shook the community. Police bodycam video showed Benedict in a hospital bed recounting how they were attacked by three students after standing up to their bullying at school. The next day, Benedict died. A full autopsy report ruled the death a suicide. 

Benedict’s death sparked global interest and criticism from LGBTQ advocates who link their alleged bullying to anti-LGBTQ legislation in Oklahoma and other states. In the weeks following Benedict’s death, the Rainbow Youth Project, a national LGBTQ nonprofit focused on youth suicide prevention, saw a 238% increase in crisis calls from Oklahoma. The Centers for American Indian and Alaska Native Health reported last year that 60% of Indigenous youth have experienced severe mental distress.

“I was already dealing with so much of my own mental health stuff, and then hearing [about Benedict’s death], it just made me hate so much more about the state we live in and the world we live in and how people don’t care until someone dies,” said Bear, 15, a Cousins member.  

Cousins members say they are concerned about discrimination in their schools, which has only been highlighted by Benedict’s death. 

“There’s no amount of safety here that can really make me feel confident enough in the public school system at this point, especially after what happened with Nex,” said Angelina Steinmeyer, 21, a Cousins mentor and member. 

In response to safety concerns from the group, Dan Isett, director of communications at the Oklahoma State Department of Education, told NBCU Academy in an email: “The safety of every student in Oklahoma schools is prioritized equally, with equal care taken for all our students.”

Shortly after Benedict’s death, Adams brought in a grief counselor during Cousins’ monthly circle talks. Members learned how to recognize grief and how it might show up in their lives. Twelve said they were coping through writing. 

“We wanted to help them through this moment, this terrible, horrible moment when we lost a relative,” Adams said. “Nex is our relative, that’s how I see it.” 

Raising the next generation of leaders

To open up the lines of support, Cousins recently decided to make some of their events inclusive to all LGBTQ youth in the state, not just those who are Indigenous. 

“My son said, ‘We don’t have the luxury of cherry-picking anymore. We have to make sure that everybody has spaces,’” said Adams. “And now we’re trying to figure out how we do that.”

In February, the group took a trip to San Francisco to participate in the Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirit Powwow. The event honored traditional Indigenous culture through song, dance, drumming and contests; it also offered a supportive gender-affirming experience for the diverse Two-Spirit community and allies. 

“I was just like looking all around myself and I was like, ‘Wow, they made it,’” said Twelve. “‘Oh my God, there’s so many people like me around here.’”

Auntie Sage said she wants to take members away from spaces that often exclude 2SLGBTQ people and put them into environments where they can see possibilities and take pride in who they are.

“I hope they can have those kinds of stories for themselves one day,” Auntie Sage said. “They spread their little wings and they fly.” 

In the meantime, the group will continue to host open conversations, expand its space and counsel queer Indigenous youth and others in the face of rising tensions in schools and opposition to 2SLGBTQ events in the state. 

“If there were to be an end goal, I hope that the end is us breaking the cycle,” said Steinmeyer, adding that it’s important to “teach children what it’s like to be different.”