Hundreds form human ‘barrier’ to protect Nex Benedict school from Westboro Baptist Church protest

A protest by Westboro Baptist Church outside the school where Nex Benedict – a gender non-confirming teenager who died last month – was a pupil, was dwarfed by members of the LGBTQ+ community. 

Nex Benedict, 16, who friends have said was Two Spirit and used he/they pronouns, died on 8 February after reportedly being involved in a physical altercation with other students in a school bathroom the day before. 

The teenager’s death has attracted national attention and while no official cause of death has been confirmed, federal officials announced they are opening an investigation into the school district, which has been criticised for allegedly failing to seek medical treatment for Benedict following the incident. 

On Wednesday (6 March) the Westboro Baptist Church – a controversial, anti-LGBTQ+ fringe religious group infamous for picketing funerals with “God Hates F*gs” signs – showed up outside Owasso High School in Oklahoma to stage a “public preaching”. 

In a press release shared prior to the demonstration, which misgendered Benedict throughout, the group pushed anti-trans rhetoric and even claimed the teen was to blame for his own death. About a dozen members of the Church turned up carrying American flags alongside homophobic and transphobic signs, as well as ones threatening damnation for disobeying God. 

Speaking with local media, one member, Shirley Phelps-Roper, was reported as saying: “Why are they grieving the loss? They told [him] that it was OK for [him] to do what [he] was doing. If you teach your children in any way that it’s OK to disobey God, then you teach them all the way up to murder is OK.”

In response to the picketing, more than 400 members of the LGBTQ+ community and their allies showed up to counter-protest and stand in solidarity with queer students at the school and elsewhere. 

Rainbow Youth Project stands against hate with @ParasolPatrol @_dofd @ruralokpride and Diversity Center and with the community of Owasso, OK against hate. pic.twitter.com/KCRXgZrZ9U

— Rainbow Youth Project USA (@RainbowYouthUSA) March 6, 2024

The counter-protesters waved Pride flags, held colourful signs which read “Protect trans kids” and “You are loved”, while members of the Parasol Patrol – a not-for-profit group that shields children and young people from protesters – held rainbow umbrellas aloft. 

​​The group is a “peaceful barrier in between hate and these kids,” co-founder Eli Bazan told NewsChannel 8. “Owasso Oklahoma has been through enough and the last thing they need right now is Westboro coming out here and preaching their hate.” 

Hate has no place in Owasso, OK or anywhere else I. The USA! @RainbowYouthUSA standing strong with @_dofd @ParasolPatrol @ruralokpride pic.twitter.com/LSEOGCYUTx

— ᒪᗩᑎᑕᗴ (@LanceUSA70) March 6, 2024

Lance Preston, the founding chief executive and director of suicide Rainbow Youth Project, another not-for profit organisation that promotes the health, safety, and wellness of LGBTQ+ people, told the Los Angeles Blade that “the community stood strong and sent a clear message that love will always prevail over hate” and was a “powerful testament to the resilience and compassion of the people of Owasso”. 

Preston went on to praise the large number of police officers at the protest. “The swift and effective response to the presence of the Westboro group highlighted the strength of the community in coming together to protect and uplift its youth,” he continued.

“By choosing love and solidarity over hate and division, the residents of Owasso demonstrated their commitment to creating a safe and inclusive environment for all.”

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