South Orange-Maplewood Holds ‘Powerful’ Vigil for Nex Benedict

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More than 100 people gathered outside Maplewood Town Hall on Jerry Ryan Plaza on February 24 for a vigil for Nex Benedict, an Oklahoma teen whose death last week has garnered an outpouring of grief from the LGBTQ+ community and beyond.

The vigil in Maplewood was organized by the Columbia High School Spectrum Club and New Jersey Safe Schools Coalition.

Shannon Cuttle, a former member of the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education (as the first trans non-binary elected official in New Jersey) and Chairperson of the New Jersey Anti-Bullying Task Force and New Jersey Safe Schools Coalition, reported that about 15 students from elementary, middle and high school and two college students spoke at the event. “It was very powerful,” said Cuttle, adding that the event was held both to honor the life of Benedict and as a “call for action for inclusive welcoming safe schools for all students.”

In addition to student leaders and Cuttle, guest speakers at the vigil included Maplewood Mayor Nancy Adams, Maplewood Committeeman Dean Dafis (Dafis was also the first openly gay person to serve as mayor of Maplewood); Reginald Bledsoe, Director Essex County Office of LGBT Affairs; Daniella Mendez (the first trans woman elected official in NJ), Dover Board of Education and EDGE NJ; Stu Green, Associate Director Overlook Family Medicine-Atlantic Health System; Cathy Renna, National LGBT Task Force; Laura Hoge, Spectrum Health and Wellness; and Stephen Chukumba, Garden State Equality project manager, Human Rights Campaign Foundation Board Member, and one of fathers profiled in the Netflix short documentary film The Dads, about parenting trans children.

Maplewood Town Hall, February 24, 2024

The event was co-sponsored by The National LGBTQ Task Force, PFLAG National, Tyler Clementi Foundation, SOMA Justice, SOMA Action, Newark LGBTQ Center, North Jersey Pride, Garden State Equality, OUT Montclair, Essex County Office of LGBT Affairs, EDGE NJ, Make It Better, Family Pride+, and Spectrum Health and Wellness.

Benedict’s death following an altercation in a school bathroom last week is under investigation. In a video from the hospital later that day, Benedict, who identified as nonbinary, told police that they threw water at students who had been bullying them and that the students responded by beating them.

Although Benedict walked out of the school, they were later hospitalized and said they had blacked out when their head hit the bathroom floor during the altercation. Benedict was released from the hospital but returned the next day after collapsing and was pronounced dead at the hospital. On Feb. 21, police said preliminary autopsy results found that Benedict “did not die as a result of trauma.” According to an updated report in The New York Times, the state medical examiner’s office has not yet made public its report on the autopsy and toxicology results.

Photos courtesy of Shannon Cuttle.

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