On MSNBC, State Rep. Zooey Zephyr: “We see the way that anti-trans rhetoric directly leads to violence”

Zephyr: “It's doubly concerning when the State Superintendent has called trans people on assault on truth and appointed Libs of TikTok founder Chaya Raichik to the School Library Board.”

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Citation From the February 22, 2024, edition of MSNBC's The 11th Hour with Stephanie Ruhle

STEPHANIE RUHLE (HOST): Please care about this story. We have been following the tragedy in Oklahoma where a non-binary student, Nex Benedict, died one day after a fight in the high school bathroom. Police say that their death was not from trauma, according to a preliminary autopsy report. In a statement obtained by our NBC news affiliate, an attorney for the Benedict's urged authorities to investigate quickly and fairly, adding, quote, the Benedict's know all too well the devastating effects of bullying and school violence, and pray for a meaningful change where bullying is taken seriously and no family has to deal with another preventable tragedy. In a statement the high school expressed their commitment to student safety and security and released what information they could in coordination with the police investigation. State Representative Zooey Zephyr joins me now. She is the first transgender woman elected to the Montana Legislature. Zooey, the death of a young person is always difficult so I just want to get how you feel right now. You're a member of this community, I am quite sure you know the effects of bullying, how're you feeling tonight? 

ZOOEY ZEPHYR (MONTANA STATE REPRESENTATIVE): You know, we mourn. We mourn the loss of a life that should've been. You know, I know as a stepmother of an eight-year-old, we think about when we send our children to school, we want them to come back better, brighter and fundamentally we want them to come back alive. And what we see here is a situation where a 16-year-old had faced repeated bullying over the course of a year and was allegedly assaulted by three other classmates and died the next day. That is not how any life should come to an end. 

RUHLE: You are a lawmaker, so I am sure you spent an enormous amount of time in the last 24 hours using every resource you have to figure out as much as you possibly can about this story. What stands out to you most about what happened here? 

ZEPHYR: You know, there's a couple of things that stand out to me. On one hand, you had another student of this high school coming out on social media saying that they — a trans student — saying that they faced daily harassment, including being called slurs from teachers at the high school. You referenced the police report saying that this was not related to trauma. There was another report coming out saying that they were subpoenaing phones from students due to concerns about foul play. So, for me, you know, our community recognizes a hate crime when we see one and this has all the markings of it. And it's doubly concerning when the State Superintendent has called trans people on assault on truth and appointed Libs of TikTok founder Chaya Raichik to the School Library Board. We see the way that anti-trans rhetoric directly leads to violence and, for me, that is the most concerning thing. These deaths are preventable but they will continue to happen if people continue to espouse fear and bring forward hateful legislation around trans people in our communities. 

RUHLE: The Human Rights Campaign is calling for an investigation into this. Are you concerned that something is being missed by the local police? 

ZEPHYR: You know, we have a situation where the family of Nex Benedict is talking about how concerning the facts around the case are. And to me should not be in a situation where the family is running against the police saying someone do something, someone do something. The nature of the conflicting police reports around concerns around foul play, along with saying that a student who was assaulted by three of their classmates did not die in relationships that assault the day before, I think if we want to get to justice for Nex Benedict and their family, the Department of Justice needs to step in. I know the Human Rights Campaign has been in communication with them, I have been in communication with the Department of Justice as well, but having a federal investigation into this seems to be the way to most likely lead to justice for Nex Benedict and their family. 

RUHLE: A minute ago, you touched on, sort of, the impact that anti-trans rhetoric has in terms of bullying, but what about the laws? Republican Governor Kevin Stitt called Nex's death a tragedy and denounced bullying, but this is the same person who signed several laws that target transgender children. Does that kind of stuff exacerbate the bullying? 

ZEPHYR: It absolutely does. And it's important to note that the harm happens when the laws are in effect, but it also happens when the laws are brought forth. We had teens flee the state of Montana when their lives were being debated in the Montana House. We had a teen attempt suicide while watching one of the hearings. And it is hypocritical for a superintendent or governor to come forward and say we care about this student, we care about their lives, when they have brought forward policy, have promoted policies that directly harm our communities. The superintendent, the governor, Libs of TikTok, Chaya Raichik, they did not kill the student, but there is blood on their hands. 

RUHLE: I know I'm out of time, but as you're speaking I want to give you the chance, what is your message tonight? Right, there are scared, especially scared young people who are in the LGBTQIA community, non-binary people, trans people who are scared — maybe scared to go to work, maybe scared to go to school tomorrow. What is your message to them tonight? 

ZEPHYR: We see that the Rainbow Youth Project had a 300% uptick in crisis calls this week for LGBTQ youth. My message is, I know how hard it is, and we just have to find spaces within our community to hold on to one another. Throughout the history of attacks on LGBTQ people — whether it is today, the 2000s, the 80s —  it has been our community who has held one another up throughout these attacks. We are going to win in the end, through this moral panic. They will not, ultimately, eliminate our rights. Trans people will always exist and in the interim we have to hold onto one another and hold onto that hope. 

RUHLE: Zooey, thank you for joining us, thank you for your words. And Nex Benedict's family are in all of our thoughts this evening. Thanks again.