By Jae Moore
The tragic death of high school sophomore Nex Benedict last month cast a spotlight on the relentless bullying LGBTQ students face in schools nationwide, and on the records of Oklahoma’s elected leaders in targeting transgender students, including the Superintendent of Public Instruction, Ryan Walters.
Walters told ABC News, “we’re not going to lie to students. And we’re not going to push a gender ideology.” Walters’ repeated false claims about “gender ideology” and “only two genders” conflict with the history of Two Spirit people in his own state, which have long recognized and honored multiple genders. Walters’ comments also crucially fail to acknowledge Nex Benedict’s Choctaw heritage and the impact of Walters’ rhetoric and policies on Two Spirit, transgender, and gender nonconforming (2STGNC+) students like Nex.
Walters’ comments and policies attempting to ignore the existence and history of 2STGNC+ people in his state are consistent with his record of attempts to eliminate inclusive books. More than 350 organizations including GLAAD have called on state legislative leaders to remove Walters and investigate the unsafe climate in Oklahoma schools for 2STGNC+ students.
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GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis said Walters “dangerously and recklessly prioritized escalating attacks against LGBTQ, indigenous, and vulnerable youth, promoting lies, spreading disinformation, and pushing broad scale discriminatory policies that do nothing to improve education, [with] rhetoric and policies to erase the culture and history of entire communities of Oklahomans … in alignment with national anti-LGBTQ groups like Moms for Liberty and extremists on social media.”
At last month’s Board of Education meeting, the first since the news of Nex’s death, business owner and Vice Mayor of The Village, a suburb of Oklahoma City, Sean Cummings addressed Walters’ anti-LGBTQ record. Walters’ actions include appointing Libs of TikTok creator Chaya Raichik to the state Library Media Review Committee in January, despite a history of anti-LGBTQ posts that have reportedly preceded more than 30 threats of violence against schools in Oklahoma and nationwide, as well as libraries and childrens’ hospitals. Raichik does not live in Oklahoma, does not have children in Oklahoma schools, and has no proven background in education.
“You and your rhetoric and your inability to do anything as a board here are partially responsible for emboldening bullies to jump a [student] in the bathroom,” Cummings told Walters. “You have actual blood on your hands.”
@_dofd Sean Cummings speaking out regarding #nexbenedict #owasso to The Oklahoma State Board, #ryanwalters. #defenseofdemocracy #notonmywatch #notonourwatch #protecttranskids #transgender #accountability #ripnex #nex #oklahoma @🏳️🌈✨FLAG BOY🏳️🌈✨ @Defense of Democracy – OK @TizzyEnt @Mr Global🌎 @BeezayDad @RainbowYouthProject @Kristen B @Erican Kay 🍉 @Amy @amy roub 💄 ♬ original sound – Defense of Democracy
On Feb. 20, the Edmond Board of Education asked the Oklahoma Supreme Court to step in after the Walters-led State Board of Education threatened a downgrade in accreditation status if two frequently challenged titles, Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle and Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner were not removed from three area high schools. This comes after the state Library Media Review Committee deemed the books “pornographic,” containing “sexualized content.”
Edmond Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Angela Grunewald noted the district’s book review policy, which has been in effect for more than 25 years. “I cannot just walk in and take a book off the shelf, nor can our school board do that,” Grunewald said. “We have a policy in place … that says how books are chosen and how books can be asked to be reviewed and removed. And we know that policy and court rulings protect that.”
Walters’ battle with Edmond schools is the latest in his record of targeting inclusive books:
- December 2023: Rejecting American Library Association guidelines and announcing new Information Literacy Standards. Claimed Walters, “The ALA has repeatedly and unapologetically fought against filtering of internet pornography in libraries.” ALA guidelines include recommendations for providing materials and information presenting “all points of view on current and historical issues” that should not be removed based on “partisan or doctrinal disapproval.”
- August 2023: Sharing a post from Libs of TikTok which preceded six back-to-back days of bomb threats at Union Public Schools, continuing into September.
- July 2023: At an event at the Norman Public Library, Walters was asked: “Why are you banning books and coming to speak at a library?” And when confronted about why the Tulsa Race Massacre doesn’t fall under his definition of Critical Race Theory (CRT), Walters pushed back: “Let’s not tie it to the skin color and say that the skin color determined that.” The event is known to be one of the deadliest racist attacks in American history, when 300 Black Americans were killed and their neighborhood and business district destroyed by a white mob.
- June 2023: Using Oklahoma taxpayer dollars to appear with the book banning Moms for Liberty group, which Walters defended after the Southern Poverty Law Center classified them as extremist. Tax dollars were also spent toward Walters’ appearances on an anti-LGBTQ podcast and other extremist media, and attending the premiere of an anti-abortion film shot in Oklahoma City.
- June 2023: Appeared in a State Board of Education-released video, claiming: “We have injected radical gender theory into telling kids that they might be other genders. It’s dangerous.”
- April 2023: Asking for the review of 190 LGBTQ-themed books from the American Library Association’s Rainbow Book List, created “to fight for the inclusion of all stories in community libraries and schools” so that youth “see themselves reflected in their literature.”
- August 2022: Targeting former Norman Public Schools teacher Summer Boismier, who “received numerous threatening messages and harassment” after Walters attacked her for sharing a QR code to Brooklyn Public Library, which provides free nationwide digital access to its digital collection including banned books. Boismier filed a lawsuit against Walters after he targeted her on social media and called for her teaching certificate to be revoked. Walters said, “There is no place for a teacher with a liberal political agenda in the classroom.” The State Board of Education will hold a hearing March 28 to make a final decision about Boismier’s teaching license.
Walters’ leadership coincides with a spike in crisis contacts from vulnerable students. Rainbow Youth Project, a social welfare organization that promotes the health, safety, and wellness of 2SLGBTQ+ (Two Spirit, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer) young people throughout the United States, reported 987 mental health crisis contacts from youth inside Oklahoma since news of Nex Benedict’s death gained national attention.
Rainbow Youth Project reports that crisis contacts also spiked over the past year as state lawmakers continued passing discriminatory laws banning essential health care for transgender youth (May 2023, followed by 443 crisis contacts, up from 58 the month before), an inflammatory and inaccurate video produced by Walters’ education department falsely insinuating transgender students are a threat in schools in June (472 crisis contacts recorded), and policies to erase transgender and gender diverse people from official state designations and in school facilities (issued August 2023, followed by 453 crisis contacts).
Oklahoma had passed a ban on students using the restroom aligned with authentic gender in May 2022, and a ban on transgender students participating in school sports in March 2022.