‘We’ve got to love’: Jackson residents stand up for trans rights

Dozens recently attended a vigil, honoring the life of a nonbinary teenager in Oklahoma. This comes as advocates say LGBTQ+ rights are under attack in Wyoming and across the country.
Jackson resident Mars William Silva waves a pink and blue flag — the transgender colors — in front of the Cowboy Bar near town square on Feb. 27, during a vigil for Nex Benedict, a nonbinary teenager who recently died in Oklahoma. (Hanna Merzbach/KHOL)

The recent death of a non-binary teenager in Oklahoma has resonated across the country. 

Nex Benedict died in late February after reportedly being beaten by a group of girls in a high school bathroom — though law enforcement are still investigating the cause of death. 

But dozens of people in Jackson recently came out to gather in the freezing cold to honor Nex’s life and bring attention to legislation that may dial back more rights of LGBTQ+ people and kids in the U.S. and Wyoming. 


Thirteen-year-old Augie Henrie was surrounded by rainbow flags and signs that say “protect our children.” Augie identifies as nonbinary, or gender fluid, and said Benedict’s death hit close to home.  

“I’ve been bullied for my gender identity ever since I came out,” Augie said. “And school districts aren’t actually that good at stopping bullies.”

Standing near the Elk Antler arch in the center of Jackson, Augie, a middle school student, said they’ve been reading up on studies that show targeting gender diverse youth like them can lead to increased depression and risk of suicide. 

“If it doesn’t change, things like this are just going to keep happening,” they said.

Augie and their mom, Kjera Griffith, said there are queer people across Teton County. Just recently, Augie had a 13th birthday party where several of the guests identified as nonbinary. 

“So it was important, I think, to have that represented in our community,” Griffith said, “where it doesn’t always feel like in rural Wyoming that we have that queer pride going on here, but it is here in our community.”

Kjera Griffith and her child, Augie Henrie, hold up a Wyoming state flag in the pride colors. (Hanna Merzbach/KHOL)

But that community could be getting smaller. Griffith said they’ve seen families with gender diverse youth leave the region in the last year, seeking care in other states like Colorado, that they say have more accepting policies. 

Griffith said her family is staying in Jackson for now.

“I’m able at this point to protect my child, but I don’t know how long that will last,” she said.

The vigil for Nex Benedict was put together by Cheyenne Syvertson, a prominent advocate for Teton County’s queer community. She handed out candles to the 25 attendees. 

“There really aren’t sufficient words,” Syvertson said. “There’s nothing I could say to make what happened to this child okay.”

Syvertson is a local therapist for gender diverse youth and organized the vigil with Jackson Hole Pride. She said she worries that more queer kids, like Benedict, may die if more isn’t done to help protect them.  

“What was happening on the local policy levels and the national and state policy levels all contributed to the death of this child,” she said.

In recent years, state legislatures around the country have seen a steady flow of bills impacting gender diverse kids. 

“So while it is heartbreaking, shocking, devastating, it is exactly what will happen when we target this population, and we let these kids down,” she said. “They get hurt, they die.”

Holding a glove in her mouth, Cheyenne Syvertson hangs a photo of Nex Benedict, the nonbinary teenager who died recently in Oklahoma. She says one goal of the vigil is to make sure local gender diverse kids know they are supported. (Hanna Merzbach/KHOL)

Wyoming and other states recently made it illegal for transgender girls to participate on female sports teams. And Cowboy State lawmakers recently passed a ban on gender-affirming care for trans youth, which is currently awaiting a signature from the governor.

According to Syvertson, this kind of rhetoric has real impacts on the youth she works with in therapy and support groups.

“A lot is happening that makes their world scarier and smaller,” she said. “They’re afraid of their community. They’re afraid of their country. And still, like any of us, want to be able to be themselves.”

On the corner of Broadway and Cache, with the glowing Cowboy Bar sign in the background, Mars William Silva waved a pink and blue flag, the transgender colors.

Silva, who’s gay, said his friends were all sitting inside across the street warm at a local restaurant, but he chose to be out there.

“The least I can do is be uncomfortable in the cold, standing out here in the middle of the town that I love,” he said.

Silva said he owes it to his trans brothers and sisters to be outside standing up and protesting against the people targeting LGBTQ+ rights.  

“We’ve got to love,” he said. “And that’s what I’ll do with my hands freezing, holding this flag up.”

With a smile on his face, Silva greeted locals and tourists crossing the busy intersection during the vigil. 

“Have a great day, gentlemen. Thank you. You guys have a great night,” he said to a group passing by.

“What’s the flag for, if you don’t mind me asking?” one man responded.

“Just standing here for other people who I want to represent, who can’t represent themselves sometimes,” Silva said.

Mars William Silva waves a flag with the transgender colors, as the vigil starts to wrap up in late February. (Hanna Merzbach/KHOL)

As ungloved hands went numb, the group started to disperse for the night. And middle school student Augie said being around supporters tonight was a good distraction from reality.

“Just because this stuff’s happening, don’t be scared to be who you are,” they said. “Even though it’s bad, still just power through it. The more gender diverse and more people who show who they are, the better.”

Rolling up their Pride flags and blowing out the candles lit around the picture of Benedict, advocates said they’ll continue standing up for trans youth and that they’re not going quiet any time soon.

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About Hanna Merzbach

Hanna is KHOL's senior reporter and managing editor. A lot of her work focuses on housing and local politics, but also women's health — and whatever else she finds interesting. You can hear her reporting around the country and region on NPR, Wyoming Public Radio and community radio stations around the west. She hails from Bend, Oregon, where she reported for outlets such as the Atlantic, High Country News and Oregon Public Broadcasting. In her free time, you can find Hanna scaling rock walls or adventuring in the mountains.

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