An avalanche of news fell that day: gunfire and death at a celebration in Kansas City, lawmakers in Washington arguing over immigration, the impeachment of a cabinet member. But the item that caught Sue Kerr’s attention on Wednesday, Feb. 14, was a brief online notice about something that had happened days earlier in the middle of America. A 16-year-old student at Owasso High School, about 15 miles north of Tulsa, Oklahoma, had died after a fight in a girls bathroom. Kerr read something about it on a GoFundMe post and did a bit of sleuthing, tracking down accounts published on Oklahoma news outlets.

Gaps in the story raised questions. Who was this child? Family members referred to the student as female, but reports soon emerged that this was incorrect. The student answered to the name of Nex Benedict and used the pronouns they/them. Several online posts indicated the student was nonbinary and a target of bullying.

Information about Nex Benedict, however, remained in a cocoon of online outlets with limited audiences: a Tulsa TV station, an online obituary, a GoFundMe site. Kerr wondered, “Why are national news organizations ignoring this story?” A student died after a fight in school, for God’s sake.

For Kerr, this was no passing observation but an urgent thought propelled by a potent mix of memories. She grew up in West Mifflin in a family of steelworkers — five generations’ worth. She remembers a decades-old moment, when she was 5 or 6 years old and stranded with her younger brother on the porch of her family’s home. The parents were out driving somewhere, mom wrestling with depression, dad with his alcoholism and gambling. His addictions defined the family’s fortunes. After a big win, it was off to Disney World. At other times, the heat was shut off at the family home, the cupboards bare.

Locked out, Kerr understood she couldn’t go to her neighbors for help. Such an act would simply result in a cascade of arguments. So she and her brother worked together, climbing a roofing ladder so they could enter the home through a kitchen window.

Pittsburgh blogger Sue Kerr at age 7. (Courtesy of Sue Kerr)

Nearly five decades later, Kerr looked at the image of Benedict — a  face framed by wavy black hair tumbling down to the shoulders, a tight smile — and thought, “Who will stand up for this child?” Kerr saw a student abandoned not by family but by the people and institutions charged with caring for the young, especially the most vulnerable. Nex Benedict encountered a porch moment, but where was the helpful sibling? Where was the ladder and the window to safety?

In Oklahoma, powerful state officials have targeted transgender people by enacting a number of anti-transgender laws governing bathroom use, health care and sports teams. One state official called transgender people “filth.” Oklahoma’s head of public schools appointed a far-right podcaster who’s called for violence against transgender people and who has no links to the state, to a school library advisory committee. 

Kerr spent a few days researching Nex Benedict’s life and, on Friday, Feb. 16, wrote about Benedict in a post for her blog Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents, which she started in 2005. She dedicates a portion of her blog posts to “honoring the lives and mourning the deaths of our transgender, nonbinary and gender nonconforming neighbors.” She calls this segment of her blog “In Memoriam,” and it dates to 2013. Benedict’s was the 321st name added to the list.

Kerr shared the link across social media platforms and then waited. Normally, mainstream media outlets pick up overlooked stories like the one about Nex. That’s one of Kerr’s roles in the media ecosphere — bringing light and understanding to stories in a community other reporters don’t fully understand. A number of journalists keep an eye on her blog and her social media accounts. (Her followers on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, number nearly 9,000.) 

One day passed. Nothing happened. Then, on Sunday, Feb. 18, Kerr noticed the traffic on her blog had jumped. Suddenly she was getting tens of thousands of views — the number would reach 100,000 by the weekend’s end. A nonbinary blogger picked up on Benedict’s story and, later that day, published a piece in the progressive news site Daily Kos.

The next day, a Monday, the Los Angeles Blade, an LGBTQ newspaper, published a story focused on Benedict. Other LGBTQ publications — the Advocate and the Washington Blade — wrote about Benedict on Tuesday, Feb. 20. Soon, the story caught the attention of more mainstream publications such as the Tulsa World, The Washington Post and The New York Times. The story of Nex Benedict became part of the national discussion about the threats faced by trans people.

It happened in large part because Kerr, a 53-year-old daughter of a steel-working family, sat on a living room couch in the home of a friend in Brentwood and hurled herself into a tragic situation several states distant while her own life remained in a state that could be described as tumultuous.

In August of last year, Kerr’s 20-year relationship with her wife crumbled, the end punctuated by the arrival of police, who put Kerr in handcuffs and took her to a local psychiatric hospital — her wife had filed a warrant of commitment. Wearing pajamas and faded rainbow-colored flip-flops, Kerr endured a five-hour evaluation. She was deemed not a threat and discharged. Friends picked her up and told her the locks on her home had been changed.

She later detailed all of this in a series of blog posts.

Friends stepped up, offering Kerr a place to stay and setting up a GoFundMe page to help pay for the lawyers Kerr knew she’d need. She lives on Social Security Disability Insurance (about $1,200 each month). As all this was happening, she took a three-week break from blogging in the fall. When she plugged back in, she learned that 10 people needed to be added to her In Memoriam page. To catch up, she wrote one post each day.

Then, in late February, as Kerr continued to track the Nex Benedict story, her father, Jim Kerr, died. He was 83. Kerr’s blog posts often venture into painful and disturbing topics — she admits she does not like to remain silent about those things that poison our lives. A day after her father’s death, she wrote an unflinching, nuanced and moving post that revealed the rarely acknowledged internal struggles of a working man’s life.

“My Dad was an alcoholic and a compulsive gambler,” she wrote. “He was self-medicating and desperate for the American dream he was denied.”

She hinted at the costs of allowing the darker corners of family life to remain in the shadows.

“He lived a difficult and lonely life keeping family secrets, not trusting anyone, and carrying a traumatic burden,” Kerr wrote. “His family didn’t respect or cherish him ever. He never felt lovable. But he did his duty to them. Now the secrets are theirs alone to keep. He is free.”

And then there was the pain.

 “I am disconsolate at being alone in the world. Most of my family is gone. I am so sad.”

* * *

Sue Kerr entered the world in 1970, and when she was 4 years old, her parents purchased a one-story brick home in a West Mifflin development that had sprouted up after World War II. Her mother, Kerry Pryor Kerr, was a devoted Catholic who made certain her children attended Mass every Sunday at the now closed Holy Spirit Church, just down the street. You were attentive during grace and if you had a problem, you offered it up to God in prayer. There was confirmation, confession.

Following family tradition, Jim Kerr entered the steel mills, laboring for LTV, Shenango Steel and Koppers before retiring from ArcelorMittal. He was part of the desulfurization unit, responsible for cleaning up the mill’s exhaust and waste.

Jim Kerr wanted to move up in life. He attended classes at Community College of Allegheny College, but working swing shifts at the mill made it too difficult, so he dropped out. Kerry Kerr earned an administrative degree from Point Park College, now a university, and spent her working life at clerical jobs. 

As for the Kerr’s neighborhood, it was not a pristine, Hallmark-happy community. Sue Kerr remembers the brutality she witnessed among those living in its small orderly houses.

“It was a violent childhood, because domestic abuse was significant,” she said. “People would blame alcohol or whatever, but in truth people felt it was OK to beat up women, for whatever reason, or their kids. There was violence in schools. I saw teachers dangle kids out of windows, slam kids into lockers. The sexual predation of teachers was off the hook.” Kerr said she tutored three girls whose teacher offered to tutor them privately but was behaving in ways they felt were inappropriate.

“It was this unspoken understanding of the way sexualized violence permeated school, work, home, church, and no one ever talked about it,” Kerr said. “I think that’s why I’m a blogger, because I refused to not talk about it. The only way to put a stop to it, and to deal with the trauma, is that you have to talk about it.”

After graduating high school in 1988, Kerr earned a political science degree from Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia, then in 1992 headed south to Louisiana State University for graduate work in two areas, political philosophy and judicial politics. Her plan: earn a doctorate and eventually teach at the college level.

Events would send her in a different direction. 

Sue Kerr celebrates her graduation from Marymount University with parents Kerry Pryor Kerr and Jim Kerr. (Courtesy of Sue Kerr)

As a child, Kerr sometimes experienced anxiety so severe she found it difficult to leave her family’s house. So while at LSU, she sought out mental health treatment, something she’d wanted to do since high school.

She was diagnosed with unipolar disorder, a serious form of depression (a misdiagnosis, she later learned) and given a prescription for medication that caused her to become hypomanic. Her energy level reached abnormally high levels. She felt untouchable yet out of control. It rendered her incapable of completing her thesis.

So Kerr decided against pursuing a career in academia. She wanted to hurl herself into something different. With no commitments or debt weighing her down, she had choices. What about the Peace Corps? That was a “no” — she didn’t want to leave the country.

One day, while flipping through a book describing service opportunities, Kerr noticed an insert about an outreach program involving a Catholic organization called the Glenmary Sisters. She found the idea appealing. Faith had played an important role in her life after all. At LSU, she attended Mass with other Catholic students she’d met. Catholicism offered community and added structure to her life. So she signed up and became a lay missionary.

Within months, in late 1995, she found herself in Elkton, Kentucky, a town of about 2,000 people near the Tennessee border. Elkton had two restaurants, both closed on Sunday (although a Dairy Queen remained open). Drivers could roll through the entire county and never see a stoplight. 

There, Kerr organized and operated an interfaith thrift store. Many of the people Kerr met and worked with lived in grinding poverty. She calls it one of the best experiences of her life. 

 “What the people had, they shared,” she said. “I didn’t have that when I was growing up. In my neighborhood, it was every man for himself.”

She worked side by side with people who centered their lives around faith. She worked with dozens of pastors to organize a food pantry and started a program in which women with children earned $5 in credit for every hour they volunteered at the thrift store. Men earned credits by cutting the grass.

At the same time, Kerr’s mental health spiraled downward. She reached a crisis moment and checked herself into a Nashville hospital. The decision cost her dearly. While at the hospital, a parish priest fired her from her job during a phone conversation. He said she was “deeply disturbed.” No one from the church showed up at the hospital to check up on her.

“The church abandoned me,” Kerr said. “It was devastating.”

Kerr stayed in Kentucky and worked at a gospel radio station located in a double-wide trailer. It was a small operation, so every employee pitched in. Kerr engineered shows for local pastors who had their own programs, helped record commercials and promos, and did some on-air work and news reporting. 

A year later, Kerr returned to Pittsburgh, where she worked temp jobs and applied to grad school at the University of Pittsburgh. By then, she’d decided to pursue social work. She lived in her parents’ basement and, once again, became a full-time student. After graduating with a master’s degree from Pitt in 2000, she worked in a variety of fields — housing, mental health, grant-writing, child welfare.

During this time, Kerr came out as lesbian.

“It really was as simple as this: I met a woman through my work, and after a couple of months it became clear I had a crush on her,” Kerr said. “So we made plans to go to a movie. I said, ‘Oh my God, I have a date, I think I’m a lesbian!’ I was driving across the bridge in Monessen at the time, and I thought, ‘Huh!” My best friend and most of my friends were gay men. So it wasn’t horrifying to me, it was just this new thing about myself. I was like, ‘This felt great. She was cute. I like her and we got along.’ ”

She kept this from her family until 2004, when Pittsburgh Magazine added her name to its notable people under age 40. The accompanying magazine profile identified her as a lesbian. Kerr invited to the reception her grandmother, a multigenerational Pittsburgher and member of a working-class family steeped in tradition.

“She turned her back to me for a minute and said, ‘I had to find out through a magazine.’ ” Kerr remembered. “And then she turned to me and said, ‘Are you going to wear a dress to this?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I’ll wear a dress.’ And that’s all it took.”

Her parents, too, were accepting. 

“There were some awkward moments, but it was the least of the dysfunctional factors in our family,” she said.

Two years later, Kerr started her blog. She did not think of herself as a journalist but as a community organizer with information to share. Her first post was simply a test, the second a picture of her dog, Mona. She got rolling on her third post, on Dec. 29, 2005, which hinted at what would soon become the blog’s sharp, blunt and yet conversational tone.

“This is an interesting time to be a Pittsburgh queer,” she wrote. “The most important election of our lives is right around the corner (Santorum v Casey), our city is on the brink of financial collapse and we have yet to have a prominent community member identify themselves as openly gay.”

Kerr wrote about legislation, movies that focused on LGBTQ issues or characters, she called out local politicians and journalists when she felt their work threatened to harm the LGBTQ community, and praised those who stood up against discriminatory actions or bills. Always, she posted links.

Early on, she advocated for trans people. In 2007, Kerr wrote in defense of a trans woman denied an audition for a local women’s variety show, and it put her at odds with some in the lesbian and gay community who felt the posts were akin to airing a family’s “dirty laundry.”

The topic did reveal a schism — not all lesbians and gay men favored inclusion of transgender women — and this was reflected in the comments Kerr received.

“No one attacks me with the venom and deadly aim of local lesbians,” she wrote. “Not the Christians, the right wing nuts, the Ice Cream twin defenders, the Santorum lovers. Not even the Anarchists with whom I am often at odds.”

The issue flared into the broader community as well — Kerr noted it was a topic in the City Paper’s letters to the editor. She saw an upside to the discussion, heated as it was. “… I gotta think that sort of exposure to the light can only help heal the wound,” she wrote.

That moment “was a real awakening for me,” Kerr said 17 years later. “It really hit my sense of fair play.” And it marked the start of her work in support of the trans community.

* * *

Over the years, Kerr has written about police brutality, national politics, pet stores that purchase animals from “puppy mills,” poverty, other bloggers, feminism. But posts about the LBGTQ+ community stand out as the blog’s defining feature.

“She was ahead of the curve to make sure LGBTQIA issues were covered and creating a forum for these issues to be put in the mainstream,” said Kevin Acklin, who was running as an independent candidate for Pittsburgh mayor when he first met Kerr in the late 2000s. At the time, both were part of an ultimately successful effort to persuade Allegheny County Council to pass legislation prohibiting discrimination against residents in the LGBTQ community.

Acklin went on to work as Mayor Bill Peduto’s chief of staff and chief development officer. He’s currently president of business operations for the Pittsburgh Penguins. “Kerr was not just bringing attention to issues but [also] holding people accountable” by asking candidates for political offices to fill out questionnaires about where they stood on progressive issues, Acklin said.

Chris Potter is now government and accountability editor at 90.5 WESA-FM but for a decade worked as editor of City Paper, Pittsburgh’s alternative weekly, which often cited Kerr’s blog in its stories about the LGBTQ+ community. He said Kerr “has been doing what everyone hoped bloggers would do as the more mainstream media lost its way. Bloggers were supposed to be these very individual but informed voices, and that’s what she’s been for years now. There were never a ton of these voices in Pittsburgh, just a small constellation, and she’s one that’s still burning in the firmament.”

Her impact on the reporting of issues in the LGBTQ+ community went beyond bringing hidden and unseen stories to light. Kerr knows many of the city’s journalists, and she’s not afraid to reach out to them privately to challenge their assumptions or to let them know when they’ve used language that seems to the LGBTQ+ community to be clunky or uninformed.

“I once used the word transgendered, with ‘d’ on the end, and she very thoughtfully told me why that was suboptimal,” Potter said. “That’s part of the service she brings to the community, even though you don’t see it.”

Plus, he added, “She’s the only LGBTQ voice that I know in Pittsburgh that has a picture of herself with Rick Santorum,” the former conservative senator from Pennsylvania. In 1991, Kerr worked for six months as an intern in then-U.S. Rep. Santorum’s Washington, D.C., office, an experience she unpacked in a 2018 post.

Sue Kerr with then-U.S. Rep. Rick Santorum in 1991. (Courtesy of Sue Kerr)

In 2013, Kerr began the In Memoriam posts with a story about a trans woman known as Cemia Dove, Ce Ce or Ci Ci Acoff — the uncertainty of the name indicative of trans people’s space in the world. Acoff had been stabbed repeatedly, her body tied to a block of concrete and dumped into a pond in a Cleveland suburb. News outlets referred to Acoff as “he” and “him,” described her body as “oddly dressed” and highlighted Acoff’s minor brushes with the law, including failure to pay bus fare and “possession of hormones without a prescription.”

The piece reflected much of what Kerr considers problematic about the mainstream news media’s coverage of the killing of trans people — misgendering the victim and focusing on past criminal histories and details that make the victim seem strange and unworthy of empathy.

Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of the LGBTQ advocacy organization GLAAD, said Kerr’s investigations and stories of transgender and gender nonconforming people who’ve died as a result of anti-trans violence “serve as an important memorial and also — like in the case of Nex Benedict — are the catalyst for global media coverage.”

GLAAD has twice presented Kerr with its Media Award for Outstanding Blog.

Kerr’s efforts, Ellis said, “not only shape media coverage but also have a history of making real-life impact, including a successful project to remove dangerous anti-trans radio ads across Pittsburgh” in 2022.

In October of that year, Kerr received a tip that some Pittsburgh radio stations were airing a transphobic ad, so she tracked down the commercial, which attacked the Biden administration and the “new left” for backing gender-affirming care for transgender youth. Paid for by a right-wing organization called America First Legal Foundation, the ad was part of a broad, multistate effort targeting transgender children. Kerr alerted her readers about the commercial and encouraged them to contact the stations and complain. Within days, Mayor Ed Gainey and other civic leaders stepped up to condemn the ad. All but one of the eight Pittsburgh-area stations airing the commercial agreed to pull it.

Kerr’s work on behalf of the trans community extends beyond the Pittsburgh region. She’s part of an international coalition researching instances in which transgender people die in acts of anti-transgender violence. The group’s members live in Australia, South America, Canada, the United Kingdom, Africa and Eastern Europe, as well as the U.S. In addition to conducting research, the group boosts efforts to raise money for funerals and memorials, tracks official investigations into the deaths, and makes certain victims are part of the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance.

“Sue has been one of the few people we can rely on consistently to get information and news out there,” said Viktor Veltstra, a transgender man who serves as one of the group’s administrators. “There have been times when we’ve reached out to other publications to get attention on cases and we’ve not gotten an answer back. They’d rather wait until Sue breaks it. They seem to hold back until she reports on it. That happened with Nex.”

The Nex Benedict story continues to unfold. An autopsy report ruled the death a suicide — the result of a combination of antidepressants and antihistamines. The report noted Benedict suffered from head trauma and other injuries but that these injuries weren’t lethal.

Some conservative outlets say the results prove Benedict didn’t die from anti-trans bigotry, but LGBTQ+ advocacy groups say the report does not absolve officials who’ve created a hostile and unsafe environment for transgender students who often face harassment and bullying.

Sue can’t continue to research and write about the case because the killings continue. Since the Nex Benedict story broke, she’s written five more In Memoriam posts. Those killed: Torrence “Chevy” Hill, Reyna Hernandez, Diamond Cherish Brigman, Alex Franco, Meraxes Medina.

* * *

Let’s step back for a moment and focus again on Kerr’s willingness to write painfully honest and revealing posts on her own struggles and losses — the death of her mother, Kerry, in 2022, the breakup of her longtime relationship and, most recently the death of her father, which includes passages that could be written about thousands of Pittsburgh fathers and grandfathers.

Jim Kerr was loyal and hardworking, Kerr writes. He loved the Steelers and made certain his two children attended college. He kept his head down. It all sounds very familiar. But then Kerr’s post crashes through the barriers established by the “silent generation” and offers readers a glimpse into the darker spaces inhabited by many of Jim Kerr’s peers.

She recalls glancing down at him in his casket. He’s handsome and wearing a suit jacket and plaid tie, she writes. Kerr notes with sadness the lone set of flowers placed nearby.

“It reflects the loneliness and isolation that defined his entire life, all 83 years,” she wrote. “He spent 50 years in the mills with hundreds of coworkers, lived for decades in a neighborhood, and yet … does no one notice he’s gone?”

This post, and a February 2022 entry in which she wrote lovingly about her mother and the illnesses and trauma that contributed to her depression, functions on more that one level. They show a path to acknowledging the causes of a family’s dysfunction while, at the same time, finding ways to love those close to us who failed to be there when needed. And they point out our failures to adequately recognize the contributions, and the basic humanity, of those in our midst whose lives are often complicated and messy.

Veltstra sees all of this as part of a whole.

“It’s valuable as a local discussion about how we are treating people in our community who gave so much and are not getting much back, especially as they’re getting older,” Veltstra said. “That sense of the community not being there. How do we bring these people back in and make them feel more supported? Their lives are valuable.

“It’s not all that much different from what we’re trying to get across when we’re posting about deaths in the trans community. People are inherently valuable. The lives they live are interesting and important. They deserve to be remembered. If we have more of these conversations when they’re alive, maybe we won’t have to have as many of these memorial posts.”

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at

Steve Mellon

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at