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For the moms of Matthew Shepard and Tyler Clementi, the fight to protect LGBTQ+ youth isn’t finished

Matthew Shepard Nex Benedict Tyler Clementi
Gina vanHoof via Matthew Shepard Foundation; KJRH via CNN; Tyler Clementi Foundation

Schools, legislators and legislatures, churches, and the media are failing LGBTQ+ youth, the mothers say after the death of Nex Benedict in Oklahoma.

For the mothers of Matthew Shepard and Tyler Clementi, the death of Nex Benedict is a wake-up call that the fight for acceptance and protection for LGBTQ+ youth isn’t finished.

Tyler Clementi was a 19-year-old Rutgers student who jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge in New Jersey in 2010 after he was bullied. His college roommate and another student filmed him having a sexual encounter with another man and harassed him over it.

His mother told The Advocate that hearing about Nex Benedict’s death brings all that pain back again.

Benedict, a transgender Oklahoma high school student, was beaten in a school restroom and died the following day. Video released last Friday shows the teen telling police about how he'd been bullied in school.

“When does that bullying turn to harassment,and then turn to violence and then turn into physical actions that result in a murder?” Jane Clementi lamented. “That's horrific, and it's unacceptable, and what I think is missing is some social-emotional learning in schools. Why are the school districts not providing a safe environment for students, all students, not just those students they deem the only ones that need that safety? And it's also parents, who should have peace of mind when they send their children off to school.”

Judy Shepard feels the same way. She is the mother of Matthew Shepard, the University of Wyoming student who was beaten and left for dead in Laramie, Wyo., and who died six days later from the injuries in 1998. She wonders why, 25 years after her son’s death, we still have to endure these tragedies and why we're still not doing a better job of protecting our children.

“Yes, things might have gotten somewhat better. It’s not everywhere in the country, but certainly in more places than not, youth are reading books about the LGBTQ+ community,” Shepard pointed out. “They see movies, maybe not in school but in their town, and they were exposed through the production and also learning projects in schools. And now all of that is being protested again. Why? And why are people in leadership positions going in reverse about promoting tolerance?

Clementi feels strongly that school officials and anyone in authority, including clergy and lawmakers, need to identify their own internal biases and prejudices, and in the process gain a better understanding that bullying and hate have far-reaching consequences that stretch beyond the targeted victim. For example, Ryan Walters, the Oklahoma state superintendent of public instruction, has been viciously spewing that there are only two genders. And just as gallingly, he appointed Libs of TikTok's Chaya Raichik (a known anti-LGBTQ+ troll) as an adviser to a state library committee.

“One of the big things is being a bystander," Clementi said. Her foundation works to make those who are witnessing bullying to intervene safely.

"Tyler was the target, and there were so many other people witnessing what was happening, and nobody said anything. So what I learned in a bullying situation is there's the aggressor, there's the target, and there's often bystanders. And why don't those bystanders intervene, and that includes adults," she said. Those who do try to put a stop to the harassment are called Upstanders, and they can be one person or more than one.

Clementi warned that while Nex’s death happened in the red state of Oklahoma, these tragedies and the bullying associated can happen anywhere. “It is happening, far more than we know, and while it might not be as extreme as what happened with Tyler and Nex, it’s still happening, and people need to keep stepping forward to prevent it from happening.”

Shepard sees inaction in her own state of Wyoming. “We're underpopulated already, and we have no protections for the community here, and that’s one reason young people don't want to stay. There are anti-trans and [anti-]nonbinary bills in our legislature. Not all of them are gonna pass, but the fact that they were introduced is scary enough,” she told The Advocate. “Young people are leaving. They don't want to be here. They're afraid. Their families are afraid. They're afraid for their friends. And it's not just happening in Wyoming. It's happening in every red state. Especially in the rural areas when there's already no diversity, and there’s plenty of blame for that to go around.”

That includes not only parents, school officials, and legislators but churches as well.

“I am a person of faith,” Clementi said. “And some of these kids are getting negative messages when they sit in the pews on Sunday morning. There are a few places that have made big or slight improvements, but then there are other denominations that are pushing back completely. The Southern Baptist Convention, the Mormon Church of Latter-Day Saints, and of course the extreme right Christians, who have been virulent in their anti-LGBTQ+ preaching and actions against the community, particularly the trans community.”

The problem, according to Clementi, is that youth don’t get the opportunity to choose their religion. “They're taken wherever their parents go, and then they hear those messages, and it's not only the queer youth who are internalizing self-hate and shame, but straight peers who are hearing those messages and saying, ‘Oh, it's OK I can target this person and that person because that is what my faith is calling me to do.’ And that is not what faith is about.”

Shepard said all of the animosity toward queer kids stems from rampant hate and letting those who espouse hate ascend to positions of authority.

“We made a huge mistake in 2016 when we let hate win. I hope we learn from it and go to the polls in 2024 and get rid of this hate and put him [former President Donald Trump] and everybody who follows him and that hate in the rearview mirror,” Shepard said.

Shepard thinks the pendulum for extreme right-wing hate has gone too far to one side and that hate has become so intense and so illuminated that it’s all we hear about.

“The media just keeps harping on the fact that people aren't happy, and they continuously talk about Trump and his supporters and the haters. We don't hear anything about anybody else’s side. It sucks up all the oxygen in the room, and as a result, most people think the hate is winning.”

And part of Shepard’s advice to the Benedict family is to be on guard.

“The press is gonna be wicked — even if they're trying to do good. They'll be everywhere. But we have to use them in the right way, by talking about what happened and shedding light on Nex’s story and all the difficulty and hate they were up against," Shepard explained.

While there’s so much work to be done, there has been some progress, according to Clementi. That said, she is determined to stay in the fight.

“Some young people are feeling more comfortable to be themselves and to come out at a younger age,” Clementi said. “But we can't ignore the fact that it's not a utopia right now. It's not a perfect world. There is a lot of pushback. But these kids need the opportunity and freedom to grow up, move forward, and become happy adults who are content with themselves.”

Similarly, Shepard and her husband, despite being in the fight for almost three decades, have no plans to step away.

“We have a lot of our allies who read and follow the news too, and they need to hear these voices like Nex’s, and our voices, and they need to know what's going on. And while it would be great to take a break, for the time being, we have to keep going, particularly with what happened to Nex. Dennis is turning 76 this year. I'm turning 72, but we made a commitment to Matt and his friends and the community at large to keep talking about this as long as people will listen.”

If you or someone you know needs mental health resources and support, please call, text, or chat with the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline or for 24/7 access to free and confidential services. Trans Lifeline, designed for transgender or gender-nonconforming people, can be reached at (877) 565-8860. The lifeline also provides resources to help with other crises, such as domestic violence situations. The Trevor Project Lifeline, for LGBTQ+ youth (ages 24 and younger), can be reached at (866) 488-7386. Users can also access chat services at or text START to 678678.

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John Casey

John Casey is a senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the United Nations and with four large U.S. retailers.
John Casey is a senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the United Nations and with four large U.S. retailers.