In anti-LGBTQ+ climate, we should not be surprised that children die by their own hands

In short, bullying makes children’s lives miserable, a guest columnist writes.
In short, bullying makes children’s lives miserable, a guest columnist writes.

No charges will be filed in connection with the death of Nex Benedict. Tulsa County District Attorney Stephen Kunzweiler stated that the fight that occurred in the bathroom of Owasso High School West Campus on Feb. 16 appeared to be an “instance of mutual combat.” He also noted that, if charges were to have been filed, the case would have been handled in juvenile court.

The meaning of "mutual combat" is explained in the Oklahoma Criminal Court of Appeals case Phelps v. State (1938): “One who enters willingly into a combat and fights willingly, not for his own protection, but to gratify his passion by inflicting injury upon his adversary, engages in mutual combat.”

Is the mutual combat law a good legal paradigm for thinking about cases of bullying in schools, or anywhere, for that matter? Antagonisms that lead to the kinds of fights that occurred in Nex Benedict’s case tend to be ongoing sources of tension, anxiety and stress. Students who are bullied by others are placed at a disadvantage in many respects. They often internalize negative stereotypes; they wonder “what is wrong with me?” in attempts to determine what about them leads others to hate and bully them; they tend to feel excluded and unsafe and to be constantly on guard in case they are attacked, either verbally or physically.

More: Nex Benedict didn't deserve to die. Can we reverse course and save the next child's life?

Because of all of these factors, their academic performance suffers. In short, bullying makes children’s lives miserable. The “gratification of passion” by “inflicting injury” on an adversary could be an eruption of fear and anger that is justified given a past history in which a bullied child has been on the receiving end of insults and aggression in a school environment that cannot be avoided.

In regarding such cases as mutual combat, we are ignoring who actually started the fight, that is, how the history leading up to an incident unfolded. In other words, the mutuality of aggression in such cases should be questioned. A person who stands up to a bully need not be involved in mutual combat. This is especially true in cases in which authorities fail to take effective protective action, or in which parents and teachers covertly or explicitly condone the bullying of children of whom they disapprove.

In a state awash in anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment, which is propagated by the highest state authorities, we should not be surprised that fights erupt, or that children die by their own hands. Being gay or trans is not a choice. It is who people are. If people are rejected and hated in their very person, should we be surprised by tragedies such as that of Nex Benedict? We should not be surprised, but we should be appalled.

In the history of the United States, many groups have suffered. Indigenous people, Black and Latinx people, Asian Americans, various waves of immigrants during different historical periods, women, Muslims, LGBTQ+ people and the unhoused have all been on the receiving end of hatred and discrimination.

We should ask ourselves why we hate people who are different from “mainstream” Americans. Surely fear is a major factor. Let us stop being afraid, and look to our common humanity to forge the respect required for a more perfect union.

Nancy Snow
Nancy Snow

Nancy E. Snow is a professor of philosophy at the University of Kansas. She formerly was a philosophy professor at the University of Oklahoma and director of the Institute for the Study of Human Flourishing.

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Anti-LGBTQ+ climate in Oklahoma helps fuel bullying, suicides