Nebraska's LGBTQ movement looks to new mural as symbol of persistance

Sept. 28, 2023, 11:47 a.m. ·

Teena Mural
A mural dedicated to transgender Nebraskan Brandon Teena in Lincoln smiles down on onlookers. Teena was murdered in 1993. (Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News)

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On a sunny September day near the corner of 40th Street and Baldwin Avenue in North Lincoln, artist Wes Staley was hard at work sketching outlines on the sidewall of a local business.

Their subject is Brandon Teena, a transgender man from Lincoln who was raped and murdered 30 years ago this December in Humboldt, Nebraska. For Staley, a nonbinary tattoo artist, the project combines their two greatest passions: art and the LGBTQ community.

“I feel like this whole project is really necessary for our community as a whole, but especially for our local trans community and our trans youth,” said Staley. “I can't even imagine being a trans kid in this state right now, with everything that's been going on.”

Staley is referring to a state law passed in the last legislative session that restricts transgender treatments for minors. Then, Gov. Jim Pillen signed an executive order in September requiring state agencies to define gender based on sex assigned at birth which only added to the community's woes.

“Every trans person in the state is under attack right now. And it's really, really scary,” said Staley.

Staley said even in a city as progressive as Lincoln, there’s more disdain for the LGBTQ community than is often perceived. They specifically recalled an incident where Staley and a friend were targeted.

Joe Shaw
Joe Shaw, executive director of the Lux Center for the Arts (Photo courtesy of the Lux Center for the Arts)

“The night that that happened, he was throwing fireworks at the side of our house. He was pounding on the door saying — and I quote — ‘I'll knock your faggity asses out,'” said Staley. “We had camera footage of it, thankfully. And so we got the emergency protection order.”

Other members of the LGBTQ community have similar reservations. Joe Shaw is the executive director of the Lux Center for the Arts in Lincoln, which commissioned the mural as part of the center’s ongoing mural series.

“I was kind of afraid of moving to Nebraska, if you really want to know the truth, because of stories like Brandon Teena's,” said Shaw.

Shaw, a gay man, also sees the LGBTQ movement as being under attack in the state. All the more reason to commission the Teena mural, he said.

“I think it's important for Lux, as an institution of art, to make some statements about these things,” said Shaw.

Shaw said he wants to put the organization in a place to help those who want to change things for the better.

Abbi Swatsworth, executive director of the LGBTQ advocacy group, OUT Nebraska, said that almost 30 years after Teena’s murder, things have changed, but not nearly fast enough.

Abbi Swatsworth
Abi Swatsworth, executive director of OutNebraska (Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media)

“I've seen, you know, numerous people talking about whether they need to leave the state,” said Swatsworth. “We don't know how it's landing on our youth, but we can say that it's probably very difficult.”

She said while the current climate is difficult, the increased attention hasn’t been all bad.In fact, Swatsworth said, there are more LGBTQ advocates in the state now than ever before.

“We've seen I would say record-breaking numbers of folks engaging at the state legislature being a part of the hearing process and reaching out to talk to their state senators,” said Swatsworth.

Even so, Swatsworth can’t help but acknowledge the movement is in a rough spot.

At the Brandon Teena mural’s official debut, the mood was upbeat, but tinged with an aura of sadness. Crowds of people gathered into the small alley where the mural is painted for the dedication ceremony featuring a number of speakers.

The event ended with the mural’s creator, Wes Staley, offering some final thoughts to the crowd.

“To the folks who knew Brandon, I hope this piece is comforting to you whenever you reflect on his memory. And to the younger generations of trans and queer youth. I hope you continue to learn about our history, about those who came before us, the sacrifices that were made to simply be who we are, and then it gives you inspiration to join the ongoing fight for a better future,” they said.

Mural Finish.jpg
Groups of people gather for the Brandon Teena mural dedication ceremony in North Lincoln (Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media)