Lawrence and Appleton communities hold vigil for Nex Benedict and transgender youth

Students and community members take part in a candle-lighting ceremony. Photo by Jacob Hanekamp.

On Saturday, March 30, the day before Transgender Day of Visibility, Lawrence students and Appleton community members gathered in Kaeyes Mamaceqtawuk Plaza to observe a vigil for trans youth. The event honored the memory of Nex Benedict, a nonbinary teenager who died after being attacked by other students in the girls’ bathroom of Owasso High School in Owasso, Oklahoma. According to an Instagram post by Appleton Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and Lawrence University Native Americans (LUNA), Benedict’s death occurred alongside the rise of anti-trans legislation introduced in the U.S. and around the globe, which in turn has spurred a rise of transphobic rhetoric and violence.  

“Nex’s death did not occur in a vacuum,” reads the post’s caption. “[Their] death, like those of transgender, two-spirit, and gender nonconforming people everywhere, represents an institutional failure by those in power to combat the rising tide of transphobia and to protect queer rights.”  

The vigil took place at 7:30 p.m., emceed by SDS member junior Adam Fleischer. SDS set up a board displaying the pictures and names of murdered transgender people — including Benedict — surrounding the words, “gender-expansive youth deserve to become gender-expansive elders. Let trans kids live.”

Students cup their candles with their hands while listening to a speaker. Photo by Jacob Hanekamp.

The observance began with senior Madeleine Corum, who led observers in a “heart chant,” an improvisational deep listening exercise where participants stand in a circle connected by their hands on each other’s backs with a goal of release and healing. Following the exercise, observers shared poetry about the transgender experience such as Joshua Jennifer Espinoza’s “Let Us Live;” told personal anecdotes of their experiences with the transgender community; and performed an oratorio originally dedicated to Matthew Shepard. The vigil ended with a moment of silence dedicated to Benedict and those depicted on the centerpiece, as well as a promise by SDS member junior Patrick Sweeney to continue to work towards justice for transgender youth as a whole.  

“We come here to mourn, to remember, and to celebrate, but if that’s all we do, these attacks will only continue to happen,” Sweeney said. “We can — and we will – fight back.”