Nebraska’s Brandon Teena mural honors transgender history, community

One of the latest LUX Center for Arts murals in Lincoln brings together the LGBTQ community and honors the life of a trans man raped and killed in December 1993

By: - October 13, 2023 5:45 am

This mural honoring Brandon Teena stretches alongside an alley in East Lincoln for the LUX Center for the Arts. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — In an unassuming alley in University Place lies one of the latest LUX Center for the Arts murals, which offers a tribute to Brandon Teena, a transgender Nebraskan killed 30 years ago.

Brandon Teena is memorialized in this mural created by Wes Staley for the LUX Center for the Arts. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

The mural, “Remembering Brandon Teena: Son, Brother, & Friend,” is one of 10 that stretch along buildings in East Lincoln. Advocates including Isabella Manhart of Omaha and Wes Staley, the artist, unveiled the mural Sept. 24. The titles in the mural — son, brother and friend — are the inverse of those on Teena’s gravestone.

Staley, a nonbinary tattoo artist, described the mural as a product of 60 to 70 hours of drawing and painting that included blood, sweat, tears and sunburns.

“And I’m still having a difficult time believing that this is something our community finally gets to call our own,” Staley wrote in an artist’s statement.

‘It’s a part of our history’

Manhart, who has advocated for more visibility of trans and nonbinary Nebraskans, worked with the LUX Center and Staley to line up the mural. The mural follows Manhart’s work in May for a viewing of a documentary detailing the story of 21-year-old Brandon Teena, a Lincoln native.

In 1993, Teena was raped on Christmas Eve in Falls City, Nebraska, and murdered, along with Lisa Lambert and Phillip DeVine, on New Year’s Eve in Humboldt, Nebraska.

“For me, it means a lot to know that trans people in Nebraska won’t be forgotten,” Manhart said of the mural.

Wes Staley, at left, and Isabella Manhart of Omaha at the unveiling for a LUX Center for the Arts mural honoring Brandon Teena on Sept. 24, 2023. (Courtesy of Abbi Swatsworth/OutNebraska)

After the May documentary viewing, the filmmakers suggested a memorial to honor Teena, Manhart said. Abbi Swatsworth, executive director of OutNebraska, which advocates for LGBTQ Nebraskans, connected Manhart with the LUX Center, and the center later selected Staley to create the mural.

The mural is a direct response to legislative action this spring regarding transgender youths and ahead of the 2024 legislative session when more transgender fights are expected, Manhart said. The Nebraska Legislature this year passed a law restricting medical transitions before the age of 19.

Manhart shared Teena’s story with lawmakers this year, but Teena now has a permanent spot on the wall.

“It’s not something that can be denied or pushed away,” Manhart said. “It’s a part of our history that we need to recognize and remember and really think about how we’re going to make the Nebraska of the future one that looks different and feels different for trans people than the Nebraska of our past.” 

‘Positive note’ in Teena’s story

Susan Muska, who created the 1998 documentary “The Brandon Teena Story” with Greta Olafsdottir, said Teena’s death is a “classic tragedy that embodies everything that’s wrong with the way mainstream culture can be swayed to perspective minorities.”

Muska said Teena had not physically transitioned but had transitioned socially, which put him on a “sad road to hell.” 

Susan Muska, at left, and Greta Olafsdottir, at center, created the 1998 documentary on Brandon Teena’s life featured at a May 1 panel discussion in Lincoln. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

“Brandon’s story is something that happened more than once in LGBTQ history,” Muska said.

Of the state’s current lawmakers, 16 were 19 years old or younger at the time of Teena’s death. Two senators weren’t born yet — Beau Ballard of Lincoln and Julie Slama of Dunbar, whose district includes Humboldt and Falls City.

The filmmakers are preparing a follow-up film, and Muska noted it’s important to share Teena’s story, especially for youths who are on the frontlines of continued advocacy. 

“I think it’s more like a positive note in an ongoing story that we want it to be a really kind of happy ending, that things are going to change for the better,” Muska said, “that people are going to be able to live their lives without feeling like their rights can be taken away from them.”

‘You can never replace someone’

Joe Shaw, executive director of the LUX Center for the Arts in Lincoln. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Joe Shaw, executive director of the LUX Center, said University Place is near the neighborhood where Teena grew up and said the center is proud to have a role in sharing Teena’s story.

Shaw said that the center has always wanted to make the neighborhood a backdrop for a creative district and that sharing Teena’s story shows the necessity for society to be more accepting and willing to let people be who they are.

“I think justice was served eventually, but you can never replace someone,” Shaw said. “It’s nice that there’s a place where people can come and reflect on gender identity and what it means and how it has a multitude of expressions.”


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Zach Wendling
Zach Wendling

Zach Wendling recently graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a double major in journalism and political science. He has interned for The Hill and The News Station in Washington, D.C. He reported for the Nebraska News Service and The Daily Nebraskan before joining the Nebraska Examiner staff as an intern.