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Two recent case of violence showcase the realities LGBTQ people face

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

And as a warning, the following story discusses suicide. We've talked a lot on this program about the fact that suicide rates for queer and trans people are disproportionately high. They're also routinely targets of violence and hate crimes. And that fact was a source of worry for Brandi Sanders (ph) when her child came out as nonbinary.

BRANDI SANDERS: My first thought was, what if they get hurt? What if somebody hurts them because of who they are, not because of what they do or what they believe but who they are?

DETROW: Sanders' child is now 24, but back then, her first instinct was to support them.

SANDERS: When my youngest came out, I just had this urge to get resources to help navigate this journey.

DETROW: Sanders lives in Oklahoma. According to the ACLU, Oklahoma legislators have proposed more than 50 bills in 2024 alone that the group says targets LGBTQ people - everything from dictating how educational curriculums deal with gender to restricting bathroom use and sports participation to other things. That's all more than any other state. And Oklahoma is also where 16-year-old Nex Benedict died.

SANDERS: Every parent is going to think, what if that was my kid? You know, every school has a kid like Nex.

DETROW: In February, Benedict, who's nonbinary, was found dead at home. They'd gotten into a fight at school in the restroom the day before. Benedict's family says they'd been bullied and targeted at school well before that altercation. The Oklahoma medical examiner's office recently determined that Benedict died by suicide, and the Tulsa County district attorney has declined to press charges related to the fight. But Brandi Sanders says Benedict's death is indicative of a bigger issue that many LGBTQ youth face across the U.S.

SANDERS: Every school has a kid like the kids that were in that bathroom that day. This is not a isolated, one-off problem. This has been going on for a long time.

DETROW: Some states are moving to increase protections for queer and trans people, but many others have introduced bills or passed laws that restrict the rights and visibility of transgender individuals. Around the same time that Benedict died, there was a new development in the case of Dime Doe. Doe was a Black trans woman in South Carolina who was killed in 2019. And last month, a man who had been in a relationship with Doe was found guilty of killing her.

This matters because it is the first time in the U.S. that a federal case was brought to trial involving a hate crime based on gender identity. In their role as policy counsel at the National Center for Transgender Equality, Kris Tassone tracks the stories of people like Nex Benedict and Dime Doe. I asked them how this case fits into the larger conversation about violence against trans people.

KRIS TASSONE: Well, it is such a mixed bag when we look at this case. On one hand, it is a very good sign for access to justice for the trans community. This is the first time that a federal hate crimes charge was brought to a trial, and the person convicted on that charge by a jury, which says that just like all of the other groups who are covered by hate crimes legislation, that these avenues for seeking justice are becoming increasingly available to the trans community. But it's also important to note violence against the trans community is a much more frequent occurrence than we would like and particularly for Black trans women. That is a demographic that is disproportionately at greater risk of victimization and at greater risk of being the victim of a bias-related incident or a hate crime.

And so I think it is important to recognize that not everybody in the trans community has an equal access to justice. And for some of us, this is a very hopeful case that our rights are going to be supported. And for some people in the community, they are very concerned that this case was one out of so many that we still have a lot of distance to cover, a lot of ground to cover before we start seeing meaningful change, and we don't want to get hung up on this one success.

DETROW: You're talking about all of these challenges. What was it about the Dime Doe case that made this path possible and made this verdict possible?

TASSONE: Well, one of the things that we know from the people who were working on this case is that the text messages between Ms. Doe and her partner, many of which were then deleted, were very instrumental in being able to get the charge of hate crimes to stick, to get this prosecuted and convicted as a hate crime. And that's because that was essentially her killer admitting, like, I am concerned because of your gender identity. I am upset that your gender identity is going to lead to other people in the community believing things about me, and this is the thing that I am upset about. This is my motivation for wanting to kill you.

DETROW: And given the context of what happened with Nex Benedict and what is happening so frequently throughout the country right now, do you view the verdict in the Dime Doe case as a win when there is still so much ongoing violence and anti-LGBTQ laws targeting trans youth and trans adults?

TASSONE: When you're talking about a murder trial, the positive outcome - the win - would have been for that person to never have died in the first place. But we have gotten the best possible outcome, which is justice for Dime and her family and her loved ones, in that the killer was brought to justice. So in that way, maybe it is a small win, but I don't think that that's a win that you can claim anything larger from. There is still a long way we have to go for our community as a whole being able to access justice and being able to live our lives freely without fear and harassment and discrimination.

DETROW: You have this recent verdict in the Dime Doe case. You have this focus on what happened to Nex Benedict. What do you think these two different - very different - cases indicate about the current state of protections for trans people in the country?

TASSONE: I think it shows how very patchwork those protections can be and how much, No. 1, where you live is going to dictate the protections that you have from the government in a way that does not exist for other people. And I think it shows how we can't necessarily rely entirely on those protections. It is one thing to change the law, and that is important in accessing the same justice that everybody in the U.S. should be entitled to and the same freedoms everyone should be entitled to. But it alone is not enough to make the transgender community, the nonbinary community safe in this country. We also have to come to an understanding that trans people are people, and they are your friends. And they are your neighbors, and they are your children. And so there are really two parts to this.

DETROW: You know, the ACLU is tracking nearly 500 different bills this year that it defines as anti-LGBTQ. We have seen this become a central part of a lot of political campaigns. We have seen rhetoric about this issue become more and more central in Republican primaries in particular. What do you think is at stake at this moment?

TASSONE: Right now, we are very much at an inflection point where it is much easier to rally people behind hostility and hate and fear than it is to rally someone around a love. And there are definitely politicians who are banking on that, who use these anti-trans bills, who use anti-trans sentiment, who will create facts out of thin air or create allegations against the trans community to whip up that furor and get people to the polls to vote for them. And right now, we have an opportunity to take a hard look at what's happening in our society and take a hard look at what is being said about trans people and recognize that it's not true - like, to recognize that trans people just want to live our lives freely without harassment or discrimination, just like everyone else. And right now is the opportunity because if we can come to that recognition and stop passing anti-trans legislation and allow trans people to live safely, then I think we can keep making progress so that we can have a free and safe society for everyone. And if we do allow that fear, if we do allow that hate to control us, I think that we are going to enter a period where it becomes very unsafe to be trans in the U.S.

DETROW: Let's bring this back to Nex Benedict. What do you think people listening should know about Nex Benedict?

TASSONE: I think the most important thing to know about Nex Benedict is the boring detail, is the fact that Nex was a 16-year-old kid. Nex was going to school. They had friends. They went home to family who loved them. They probably spent more time on TikTok than they should have and not gotten all their homework done on time. You know, they were a kid, and they deserved to be a kid. And they deserved to still be here now, and they deserved that from society. They deserved that from the Oklahoma government and the lawmakers and officials in Oklahoma who are passing bills that make it harder for students like Nex to be a kid. And they deserve it from the school and the department of education. And I know there are still a lot of questions around Nex, but the important fact is they should not have been bullied. They should not have been the victim of an assault at school. And when they were, it should have been handled appropriately, and we failed Nex. And because we failed Nex, Nex is not here.

DETROW: Kris Tassone, policy counsel at the National Center for Transgender Equality. Thank you so much for joining us.

TASSONE: Thank you, Scott.

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