A Young Activist Emphasizes Spreading Love and Joy in the LGBTQ+ Community

By: Heather Diehl

On Feb. 25, 2024, high school senior, Pilot (he/they) approached the podium in Durham Central Park and gazed into a crowd illuminated by candles. The diverse assembly, representative of individuals from all walks of life, had gathered to mourn the loss of Nex Benedict. Benedict, a 16-year-old resident of Owassa, OK, ended their life due to relentless bullying inflicted upon them because of their non-binary identity.  In the wake of the tragic loss, Pilot and members of numerous Durham Public School Gay Straight Alliances and LGBTQ organizations, felt a vigil was necessary to facilitate a safe space for members of the LGBTQ community to grieve together. 

Despite the 1,000 miles of distance between Nex and Pilot, the high school senior felt compelled to honor Nex’s life. The vigil also provided an opportunity to advocate for ways to increase protective measures for transgender youth at school. 

“That could have been my best friend, that could have been the person that I spent all of my weekends with,” Pilot said. “[Nex was] someone’s best friend and they were someone’s pride and joy.”

A painting of Nex Benedict is displayed at a vigil in Durham, N.C. on Feb. 25, 2024. (Heather Diehl/Durham Voice)

Nex’s death is not an isolated instance, but rather a stark reminder of the threats to the physical and mental well-being of transgender and non-binary youth across the United States. In 2020 the Trevor Project reported that more than half of transgender youth had seriously considered suicide. It also noted that 61% of the same demographic had stated they had been prevented or discouraged from using a bathroom corresponding with their gender identity. 

For Pilot, a childhood spent in Florida too often reflected such disparaging statistics. Pilot came out in fifth grade as queer, but lacked a supportive school environment and openly queer teachers to serve as role models. As a result, Pilot felt the need to once again hide their identity, concealing who they truly felt they were almost as soon as they had been brave enough to reveal the truth. However, upon moving to Durham Pilot discovered that their new school celebrated queer identities through its acceptance of non-binary teachers. This was the first time Pilot realized these identities could be accepted within the school system. He had only ever witnessed non-binary individuals be politicized for their identity and were finally able to see what an accepting community looked like. 

With the strength of a supportive community to lean on, Pilot began to not only celebrate their own identity more openly but also take on the role of being an activist for the LGBTQ+ community and active member of their school’s Gay Straight Alliance. This has led them to become more vocal at school board meetings and has spurred coordination with community organizations. One such organization, the Rainbow Collective for Change, has offered a critical role in coordinating a safe space for the Durham community to grieve the loss of Nex. Although a lot of the topics and issues facing the transgender community are heavy, Pilot approaches the conversations through the lens of love and hope. 

“If I’m speaking about failures that have happened, things that haven’t gone our way, I try to emphasize the fact that we’re still putting out good energy and hopefully, it’ll come back to us,” he said.   

Despite feelings of fear, failure, grief and isolation, Pilot has remained a beacon of love and joy to their community. While he may lack the ability to stop hate and violence altogether, Pilot is committed to playing a role in helping other members of the LGBTQ+ community through difficulties. Having a community allows them to leave their comfort zone and fight for a future where trans people can safely live and experience joy. 

“I am so happy to be me and I want to share that with literally everyone that I can all the time,” Pilot said. “There is so much joy and peace and happiness, literally never ending amounts of happiness.”

Edited by Ava Dobson