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How Libs of TikTok became a powerful presence in Oklahoma schools

LOS ANGELES — Far-right activist Chaya Raichik splits her time between California, where she’s registered to vote, and Florida, where she often travels. But the place where she arguably is having the biggest impact these days is Oklahoma, a state she’s visited only once.

Raichik, who operates the social media account Libs of TikTok, has amassed an audience of millions on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, largely by targeting LGBTQ+ people. Last month, Raichik was appointed to the Oklahoma Library Media Advisory Committee by Republican schools superintendent Ryan Walters, a former history teacher who has been called “the state’s top culture warrior” for his opposition to teachers unions and other conservative targets, including LGBTQ+ students’ rights.

Since her appointment, Raichik has sought to pull books depicting gay and transgender people, as well as sex education, from public school libraries, saying she has found “porn” in various districts. But her growing role in the state has drawn greater attention since Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary student, collapsed and died the day after a Feb. 7 fight in a girls’ bathroom at Owasso High School in suburban Tulsa. Family members said Benedict had been bullied for months for being openly nonbinary.

Owasso Police Lt. Nick Boatman said Friday that Benedict did not die as a result of physical trauma, according to preliminary information from the medical examiner, and that the department is awaiting the results of toxicology testing to determine the cause of death. Benedict’s parents have questioned that conclusion. Meanwhile, gay rights supporters in Oklahoma and elsewhere have continued to blame the fight for Benedict’s death and to accuse Raichik of bearing some responsibility for the fight.

On Thursday, Oklahoma City Councilor Sean Cummings (D) lambasted Raichik for stoking anti-LGBTQ+ hatred in the state, saying she has “blood on her hands.” And Matt Bernstein, a 25-year-old LGBTQ+ content creator in New York who has been targeted by Raichik, said: “I’m just hearing constantly how Chaya Raichik specifically has caused a rift in the experience of being a queer high-schooler in America.”

As Libs of TikTok, Raichik has been blamed for sparking bomb threats, property damage, shooting threats, written and verbal harassment and other forms of violence against individuals, hospitals and schools across the country — including in Oklahoma, according to GLAAD, a nonprofit LGBTQ+ advocacy group. In her profile picture on X, she is holding a newspaper that reads: “when Libs of TikTok posts, threats increasingly follow.”

In a podcast interview this week about the violence that follows her posts, Raichik smiled and said she’s proud of being called a stochastic terrorist — someone who inspires supporters to commit violence by demonizing a person or group.

“Honestly, like, that makes me feel really important,” Raichik said.

On Thursday, in an hour-long interview with a Washington Post reporter at a coffee shop in Los Angeles, Raichik said that “bomb threats are bad” and that she believes “people who call in bomb threats should be arrested.” But she said: “I just don’t know — what does it have to do with me?”

Raichik called Benedict’s death “very tragic” and “horrible” but said she believes nonbinary people should not be allowed to receive certain gender-affirming care.

Now time for public comments, allowing ten different people who signed up to speak for three minutes.
First is OKC City Councilor Sean Cummings, who goes after @libsoftiktok founder Chaya Raichik for what he says inspired threats to OK schools and the death of Nex Benedict pic.twitter.com/pz13eJqdbE

— Samson Tamijani (@SamsonReports) February 22, 2024

Though she holds a seat on the Oklahoma library advisory committee, Raichik said she has visited the state only once, in September, when she met with Walters. She attempted to speak at a school board meeting to ask about a high school principal who performed as a drag queen, but the board denied her request.

Though she hasn’t spent much time in the state, Raichik has had an outsize influence on its educators. She said she decided to get involved in Oklahoma politics after encountering LGBTQ+ teachers online. Oklahomans “unfortunately have a lot of wokeness in a red state, and I’m trying to help,” she said.

For example, in August, Raichik posted about an elementary school librarian in Tulsa who had a TikTok video with a graphic that said, “POV: Teachers in your state are dropping like flies but you are still just not quite finished pushing your woke agenda at the public school.” Raichik shared the video, which had been edited to include the librarian’s name and school. Shortly afterward, the school received a bomb threat.

Walters, the state’s top schools official, retweeted Raichik’s post. His office did not respond to requests for comment. In announcing Raichik’s appointment to the library board, he posted on Facebook that “no one has done more to expose what the radical left is all about than @ChayaRaichik10 and @libsoftiktok.”

Before her rise to online fame, Raichik worked as a real estate salesperson in Brooklyn. She created the Twitter account that would eventually become Libs of TikTok in November 2020. After attending the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol, she amassed an audience by promoting coronavirus denialism and false stories about child sex trafficking, in addition to casting doubt on the results of the 2020 presidential election.

Raichik’s X account was soon promoted by high-profile right-wing influencers and podcasters including Joe Rogan. Funding from Seth Dillon — founder of Babylon Bee, a satirical conservative news site — allowed her to leave her real estate career and focus on growing the account full-time. (On Thursday, Dillon tweeted that he’d cut ties with Raichik and that the two were “no longer working together.” Raichik told The Post that they’d parted ways for “personal reasons.”)

Raichik’s attacks on LGBTQ+ people escalated through 2021 and 2022. She advocated that any teacher who comes out as gay to their students be “fired on the spot.” She called on her followers to contact schools that were allowing “boys in the girls’ bathrooms” and pushed the false accusation that schools were installing litter boxes in bathrooms for children who identify as cats.

She called adults who teach children about LGBTQ+ identities “abusive,” asserted that being gender-nonconforming is a “mental illness” and referred to schools as “government-run indoctrination camps” for the LGBTQ+ community. Her followers on X have skyrocketed from around 60,000 in July 2021 to more than 2.8 million today.

In Oklahoma, Raichik has been blamed by gay rights advocates for driving teachers who support LGBTQ+ youths from their jobs. They include former Owasso teacher Tyler Wrynn, who is nonbinary. After Raichik posted about Wrynn, the teacher said they received an onslaught of death threats and harassment.

Benedict’s mother, who declined through her lawyer to speak to The Post, told the Independent that her child was angry and upset about Raichik targeting Wrynn, saying teachers who support LGBTQ+ youths are simply “allowing the students to be who they are.”

Sonja, 42, a nonbinary Tulsa resident who spoke on the condition that they be identified by only their first name due to concerns about safety, called Raichik’s posts a “terror campaign” against LGBTQ+ people and their allies that had created a “hit list” of vulnerable people.

“What Chaya likes to do is create these incendiary posts, letting followers know, ‘This is your target. This is the villain you should go after,’” Sonja said. “Then when things get out of hand, she goes back and deletes her posts. She’s pointing people toward Owasso, and things have escalated since then.”

Alec, 19, who graduated from Owasso High School last year, said things have become so dangerous in Oklahoma for LGBTQ+ youths that he has moved out of state. He spoke on the condition that he be identified by a nickname for safety reasons.

“As a person who was in those libraries and saw those bans on books that actually apply to my community, it was very scary seeing my state erasing the LGBTQ community as a whole, and saying that we are pornographic and that we are unacceptable and inappropriate for people to just exist around and to learn about,” Alec said. “We are simply just existing.”

Of Raichik, he said, “Seeing her villainize children for existing as queer individuals is disgusting. I think it is dangerous.”

Nicole McAfee, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, a nonprofit focused on LGBTQ+ rights, said even educators who do not openly support queer and trans students are nervous.

Libs of TikTok “is a platform that’s cited a lot and lifted up by a lot of officials across the state,” McAfee said. “From what we’ve heard from students, it’s really changed how other students treat them. Students who didn’t have any trouble being openly trans or nonbinary before are now being bullied by class members who are repeating rhetoric that they’re hearing from public officials in the state.”

Evan Powers, a trans student at an Oklahoma high school, said he carries a bulletproof backpack, along with books to use in self-defense. “I’m quite honestly scared to go to school every day,” said Powers, 17, adding: “I have been bullied by people that watch Libs of TikTok.”

The atmosphere, he said, makes it almost impossible to get an education.

“I want to go to college. I want to learn about the world, and I want to be able to have a safe space,” he said. “But people that post these things, it’s affecting just being able to sit in a classroom, just being able to sit in a chair and feel safe.”

correction

An earlier version of this story misidentified the school Evan Powers attends. This version has been corrected.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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