Denisen Hartlove

What happened to Nex matters to us all

Denisen HartloveCONTRA COSTA COUNTY, CA (Mar. 16, 2024) — As a former newspaper writer, I have no shame in admitting to being a news junkie.

My morning routine starts with coffee while I check (in this order): texts, emails, CNN, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and several other sites, all before getting out of bed and starting my day.

Of late, though, and perhaps in an effort to protect my sanity, I’ve made a few changes. I haven’t yet deleted the news apps or stopped reading my favorites (I’m looking at you, Atlantic Monthly). But stepping away is at least a start.

But then came Nex Benedict. Nex, who died recently, was a high school sophomore in Oklahoma.

Neighborhood kids

Nex was similar to many of the kids in our neighborhood. A photo shows them posed in front of a tree in a cute vest and shirt. They smile politely into the camera the way teens do for what was likely a picture taken by their grandma, Sue. It’s hard to not superimpose our kids Em and Max’s faces on the picture. described Nex as “a whip-smart straight-A student, a talented artist who loved animals, especially his cat, Zeus … He loved playing Minecraft and liked to make up recipes in the kitchen.”

Nex used the he/him pronouns. Tip for parents regarding pronouns: Roll with it. Pronouns never hurt anybody and, speaking from experience, you’ll want to save your direst threats for when your teen asks for a belly button piercing.

Like Nex, our son Em played Minecraft. Max has kitchen skills that have my stomach growling in anticipation every time they visit. And both use they/them pronouns.

Life was different in Oklahoma, though. The governor made no secret of his outright hatred for LGBTQ+ Oklahomans. That position was reflected in Nex’s day-to-day life, and bullying was common.

One day, there was a fight in the bathroom and Nex reported being beaten until they blacked out. The next morning, Nex was found by their grandma Sue, dying.

While no cause of death has been published, it’s hard not to connect the dots.

Not that far away

Throughout our country, politicians state their positions on everything from trade with China, the Israel-Gaza conflict and student loan forgiveness to LGBTQ+ rights. Most of those issues are remote, either geographically or in relation to our day-to-day lives – except the rights of our children to express their identities.

Either of my kids could have been Nex. Both were certainly bullied for who they are, and officials weren’t always able or willing to help. Oklahoma isn’t that far away.

As we slug back our morning coffee while scrolling CNN or Fox or Reuters apps, reading about foreign trade or immigration, border disputes or foreign governments stomping on one another’s territories, pay attention. Although the bigoted laws that resulted in the death of a 16-year-old were Oklahoma’s, that hatred transcends state and county lines.

Our lives here feel relatively safe and secure. But it doesn’t take more than one election, one moment, one fight at school before another child’s life is gone.

Staying informed and speaking out is how we protect not just kids like Nex, but our children as well. Pay attention.

You can reach Denisen Hartlove at

Denisen Hartlove
Denisen Hartlove

Denisen Hartlove is a 27-year resident of the area. In addition to being the proud mom of two LGBTQ+ young adults and a former writer for the Pioneer, Denisen is an active local Realtor and serves on the Board of Clayton Pride.