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How Did Schools Become So Dangerous for LGBTQ Kids?

Nex Benedict is the most recent casualty of the conspiracy-theory-mongering by right-wing groups, who are peddling anti-LGBTQ misinformation to instill moral panic. And it is having a fatal impact.

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In February, 16-year-old Nex Benedict was physically attacked by three students in a bathroom at Owasso High School and died the next day. According to texts shared by a family member, Benedict had been consistently bullied for months over their gender identity and was reportedly with another trans student when the fight broke out. While Benedict sustained minor injuries from the fight and was taken to the emergency room, their death was ruled a suicide. The medical examiner’s report found that it was not the physical trauma of the fight that led to their death, but a fatal dose of over-the-counter and prescription medications. 

The proliferation of anti-LGBTQ conspiracy theories has ravaged schools across the U.S., turning many places of learning into hostile environments for LGBTQ students. Right-wing media and prominent X/Twitter accounts, like Libs of TikTok, are among the largest purveyors of this misinformation, using their platforms to mainstream conspiracies targeting the LGBTQ community. The laws and school board policies that have culminated from these baseless allegations have not only restricted the freedoms of LGBTQ youth but they have also led to an increase in bullying. The tragic death of Benedict, a nonbinary student in Oklahoma—a state with an anti-trans bathroom law—is just one recent example of the type of harm these conspiracies and policies can have on queer and trans youth. 

In recent years, Fox News has repeatedly spread false claims that students are using litter boxes in school bathrooms or are being encouraged by teachers and counselors to change their sexual orientation and gender identity. Meanwhile, Chaya Raichik, the woman behind Libs of TikTok, uses her massive account to present false evidence of “grooming” or indoctrination in schools, clipping videos out of context and singling out specific teachers and school districts. 

According to Ari Drennen, the LGBTQ program director for watchdog group Media Matters, right-wing media has specifically tried to ignite a moral panic targeting queer and trans people, with Fox News often promoting social media posts without fact-checking them. “This has allowed accounts like Libs of TikTok to leverage anti-LGBTQ hate,” Drennen said in an email to DAME. Social media platforms, like X/Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok, also contribute to this problem, she says, because their algorithms tend to amplify the most extreme and outrageous content, allowing anti-LGBTQ misinformation to “spread like wildfire.”

Where this misinformation originates from, however, can be much more insidious. Conservative activists and think tanks are often behind some of the most pervasive lies about the LGBTQ community, including the myth that LGBTQ teachers are “grooming” their students. For instance, the Manhattan Institute’s Christopher Rufo has had a heavy hand in linking classrooms discussions of LGBTQ issues to pedophilia, while Michigan activist Lisa Hansen was the one to first claim that an unnamed school had a litter box in a unisex bathroom for “the kids that identify as cats.” 

“There’s almost a very concerted effort to spread misinformation about LGBTQ+ communities that can start at think tanks, it can spread to pundits who are on late night television, and then it ends up on TikTok, reaching teenagers,” said Alex Mahadevan, the director of MediaWise at the Poynter Institute. “So you have this information ecosystem that is just rewarding this type of content.”

In addition to right-wing media and social media platforms, the New York Times and other local and national publications have played a role in lending legitimacy to misinformation surrounding the number of young people coming out as trans and nonbinary. In particular, New York Times Opinion columnist Pamela Paul routinely publishes misinformation about gender-affirming health care, citing rare cases of transition regret and falsely positioning them as the norm. 

In a recent op-ed published in February, titled “As Kids, They Thought They Were Trans. They No Longer Do,” Paul promotes the fallacy of “rapid onset gender dysphoria,” accuses trans people of pushing “ideological extremism,” and claims that it is simply too easy for young people to gain access to gender-affirming treatments. Less than a week after it was published, the article was cited in an Idaho legal brief as evidence that gender-affirming care for minors should be banned in the state. The New York Times has also published several reported articles that distort the facts surrounding gender-affirming care and misframe the dilemma trans students face when they come out at school but do not feel safe enough to tell their parents.

Drennen says the New York Times has “promoted debunked theories about so-called ‘social contagion’ and refused to consider good-faith feedback on their reporting that would allow them to mitigate future harm.” The social contagion theory, which has been highly disputed, posits that young people are coming out as trans and nonbinary due to social influence. This pervasive myth, as well as the false notion that people can “turn” queer, is at the heart of most anti-LGBTQ conspiracies about schools and young people and has had a tangible impact on the way LGBTQ people are perceived and treated. 

Targeted disinformation and wild conspiracies online and in the media have not only spread like wildfire, but they have also had tangible, real-world effects, fomenting fear and vitriol against the LGBTQ community and casting suspicion on teachers and schools. “LGBTQ+ misinformation spreads so quickly because the people who are trying to spread it are really good at preying on people’s emotions,” Mahadevan said, adding the confirmation bias also plays a big role. “Our own personal biases, as well as the setup of social media platforms and the information ecosystem, just make right now more than ever such a volatile time and such a time that is conducive for the spread of misinformation.”

This emotional response has led to an influx in chaotic school board meetings, discriminatory laws and policies, anti-LGBTQ bullying and harassment, and even bomb threats. Many school districts have also implemented policies banning LGBTQ topics and books, restricting bathroom use for trans students, prohibiting trans girls from playing sports, and force teachers to remove any signs of inclusiveness in their classrooms. Evidence has shown that this political climate has created a culture of hatred and hostility in schools, especially among other students. 

According to a 2022 survey from GLSEN, around 68 percent of LGBTQ youth reported feeling unsafe in school because of hostility to their sexual orientation or gender identity, while others reporting being verbally and physically harassed. A recent report in the Washington Post also found that incidents of anti-LGBTQ hate crimes in K-12 schools have increased significantly within the last decade, having quadrupled in states with laws targeting the LGBTQ community. In Oklahoma, a state with an anti-trans bathroom law, nonbinary teenager Nex Benedict was physically attacked by three students in the bathroom at Owasso High School because of their gender identity, and died the next day. Their death was ruled a suicide. 

The real-word harm that has unfolded due to anti-LGBTQ bias and misinformation is immeasurable, especially when the lives of young people are at stake. And while there is no sure-fire solution, Mahadevan says media literacy is the key to disarming damaging misinformation. “It’s a very toxic, toxic time to be in the school system right now,” he said. “It kind of falls on individuals, citizens, students to be their own fact-checkers when it comes to this.”

Thinking critically and finding information on the source behind outlandish claims, he says, can help people debunk misinformation in their everyday lives. Whether it’s a text post or a video, Mahadevan encourages people of all ages to “look at the bio of the person who’s shared” a wild claim and “look for keywords in their bio” you can search to find out more about them. “Maybe they work at a think tank that is incredibly biased. Maybe they are a politician themselves. Maybe they are a white supremacist who’s sharing stuff on on X regularly,” Mahadevan continued. “Teaching people how to find out who’s behind the information is the most important thing to do.”



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