Vandalism of Gay Liberation Monument at Stanford University

Gay Liberation Statue

Content warning: discussion of homophobic violence.

Vandalism on Stanford University’s campus against “Gay Liberation” sculptures transformed the monument honoring the gay rights movement into a physical reminder of the LGBTQ community’s continued fight against hate and violence in the 1980s and 90s.

Renowned sculptor George Segal honed the life-sized, white-painted figures relaxing near a park bench facing the science and engineering quad: two women sitting, lovingly caressing each other’s hands on top of one’s thigh, while two men stand together, one clasping the other’s shoulder. 

Following the 10th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the sculpture provided a domestic and intimate lens into LGBTQ lives, moving away from often sensationalized, over-sexualized depictions in media.

Stanford’s casting of “Gay Liberation” isn’t alone; the second casting resides in New York City in Greenwich Village, across the street from the site of Stonewall. While New York City was the original inspiration, delays from community approvals and renovations delayed its installation until June 1992.

Palo Alto became the first home to the artwork, which was completed in 1981. It was installed in Stanford’s Lomita Mall as a long-term loan in February 1984 – after San Francisco city officials decided not to accept the display at Harvey Milk Plaza, joining previous rejections from officials in Los Angeles and Harvard University because of its subject matter. 

Trepidation about its controversy proved correct; Segal’s immaculate castings only lasted two weeks, after an unidentified man struck the art with more than 40 blows from a hammer, etching out quarter-sized scars and flattening the nose of one of the female figures.

The statues were removed from campus and transported to storage the next day, but the new void was quickly filled with flowers and mourning students. 

The University’s campus overwhelmingly stood in support of the queer community, including a 200-person demonstration one week later on March 13, 1984, the same day then-California Gov. George Deukmejian vetoed a bill that would have banned discrimination based on sexuality. 

Stanford enacted a university-wide ban on LGBT discrimination shortly after, joining Stanford Law School’s ban on discrimination within its admissions in 1982.

The brutal violence of the attack was a complete flip from the original inspiration behind “Gay Liberation.”

Following the incident, George Segal told the New York Times he was distressed, saying the art wasn’t meant as a political statement, but rather “a human one regarding our common humanity with homosexuals.” That ordinary subject matter – the shared human experience and aspiration of love – was a request from Peter Putnam, who originally commissioned the memorial to commemorate Stonewall’s 10th anniversary. 

Some students felt the vandalized work symbolized vulnerabilities still felt by the LGBTQ community on a national scale, especially given the school’s proximity to San Francisco and its active gay and lesbian community.

While in storage, the sculpture was renovated and eventually replaced back on the university lawn. However, it was attacked again less than a year later, after the word “AIDS” was spray-painted across the male couple. 

In May 1988, around 60 people rallied around the site where Gay Liberation formally stood, acknowledging its nearly year-long absence. Stanford students Steve Greene, Andrew Gans and Ann Chang, as well as Merry Meyers, a supporter visiting from San Diego posed as the statue’s four figures for a half hour as part of the Gay and Lesbian Awareness Week celebrating the community. After campus construction and renovation delays, the statue finally returned to Lomita Mall 20 months later in May 1989. 

gay liberation collage
May 1988 rally on the former grounds of Gay Liberation

On May 16, 1994 – a decade after the initial attack – “Gay Liberation” was yet again vandalized, this time covered in black paint and rammed with a bench. Varsity football and baseball athletes were arrested shortly after at 2 a.m., and two were charged with felony vandalism, while four others were charged with misdemeanors. Hate crimes were possible charges, as no individuals were directly harmed. 

The student athletes were sentenced to probation and community service.

Credit to Stanford University Libraries Department of Special Collections and University Archives

The Murder of Gwen Araujo and The “Panic” Defense

gwen araujo killed

Content warning: discussion of transphobic and homophobic violence.

On October 3, 2002, Gwen Araujo was murdered at a party in Newark California. The four killers, Michael Magidson, Jaron Chase Nabors, Jose Merel, and an unnamed fourth man, buried her body near Silver Lake campground, more than 150 miles away in El Dorado County. Although four were arrested, more at the party could have intervened to stop the murder and did not. 

Araujo’s mother, Sylvia Guerrero, buried her daughter under her chosen name, Gwen. The funeral, held October 25 in Newark, was open to the public. Guerrero released 17 butterflies, one for each year of Araujo’s life. Many came out to mourn the loss, but anti-transgender protesters were also in attendance. Students from Newark High School wore angel costumes to help block the family from protesters. 

For Araujo, living as an out transgender teen at the time was difficult. It was important to Araujo to be true to herself, but met with adversity at both high schools she attended. News articles about her death misgendered her repeatedly, an issue that prevails in the press today. Gwen was an inspiration to many trans youth in her community. Her horrific death also inspired multiple films, including a Lifetime dramatization and a 2007 documentary by a trans director.

During the Araujo trial, defendants invoked a “panic” defense, which attempted to excuse crimes like murder and assault by blaming one’s actions on a heat of passion, mental breakdown or self-defense.

This approach ultimately failed for defendants in Araujo’s case, but panic defenses have historically downgraded the severity of criminal consequences, including reducing charges of murder to manslaughter or even assault and battery.

While the exact number of times this defense has been used against members of the LGBTQ+ community isn’t clear, it has long been utilized by straight men attempting to justify and minimize the killing of gay men, dating as far back as a 1954 murder in Florida to a 2019 homicide in Santa Clara.

Arguably one of the most infamous, yet unsuccessful, uses of the gay panic defense followed the fatal beating of Matthew Shepard in 1998.

Advocates argue that this defense blames victims, thereby insinuating that violence against the LGBTQ community is not only understandable but accepted.

State legislators attempted to remedy this with the Gwen Araujo Justice for Victims Act. Passed in September 2006, the bill required informing members of a jury that they were forbidden from making decisions based on any victim’s gender or sexual orientation.

Those protections were often circumvented, including in 2008 when 15-year-old Lawrence King, also known as Latisha, was shot and later died after flirting with another boy at his school near Los Angeles.

Restrictions were placed on defendants themselves in October 2014, when Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 2501 into law, which banned panic defenses in criminal court entirely.

California became the first state to outlaw blaming victims’ sexual orientation or gender for violence committed against them. Also in 2014, Brown signed off on the Respect After Death Act, which requires that death certificates represent the deceased person’s documented gender expression.

As of 2020, only 11 states have banned the defense, but nine others have introduced legislation. Attempts at federal law outlawing LGBTQ+ panic defenses were introduced in 2018 and 2019, but ultimately failed to move forward.

1985: Fatal Police Shooting of Melvin Truss Sparked Public Outcry

The fatal police shooting of Black teen Melvin Truss sparked public outcry as many called into question the conduct of the officer responsible for his death and the handling of the case by the grand jury, law enforcement and city officials.

SJPD’s version of events

On May 4, 1985, San Jose police officer Paul Ewing was on duty in the Street Crimes Unit, wearing civilian clothes and driving an unmarked police car. Around 6:45 pm, Ewing claimed he saw Melvin Truss dressed in women’s clothes and jewelry, soliciting drivers at Second and San Carlos streets, according to a city memo authored by San Jose Police Chief Joseph McNamara.

Truss approached Ewing’s car and asked if he was looking for a date, the memo continued. Ewing drove Truss first to a Highway 280 overpass, then to San Jose Bible College, and finally to Olinder School.

According to McNamara’s memo, Truss then began to act agitated and took a steak knife out of a rolled-up windbreaker on his lap, demanding Ewing’s money. Ewing said he distracted Truss and drew his .357 magnum service revolver, pointing it at Truss in hopes that he would retreat. As Truss came toward him, Ewing fired five rounds and jumped out of the car without any injuries.

Truss was transported to San Jose Hospital, where he died at 9:05 pm the same night, according to records from the Human Relations Commission of the County of Santa Clara. He was 17.

(It should be noted that Truss weighed 115 pounds while Ewing was 6’1″ and weighed 200 pounds.)

Public uproar followed as community members and Truss’s family disputed police accounts. While a police spokesman labelled Truss a “transvestite,” Our Paper reported that advocates denounced police for waging a slander campaign against Truss.

A community fights back

Family and friends knew Truss as a shy but polite kid, a fan of Michael Jackson, Metro reported. “Melvin was the kind of person anyone could read like a book. By that I mean he did not carry any false pretenses” said Sharon Youngblood in a statement to Santa Clara County’s Human Relations Commission. Youngblood, a business instructor at James Lick High School who knew Truss for over two years, also noted: “You could look into his eyes and read his ‘soul.’”

Constance Carpenter, a lawyer with the Attorneys Committee on Police Practices, pointed out to the Human Relations Commission that police attempted to find the rest of Truss’s set of steak knives but found no matches.

In addition, in an attempt to try to identify him as an armed robbery suspect, the police pulled 380 reports of armed robberies, grand thefts, and aggravated assaults in the city, Carpenter detailed: 66 cases were investigated further and none of the victims identified Truss as the suspect, according to Carpenter’s statement to the commission.

A grand jury voted in May 1985 not to indict Ewing for fatally shooting Truss. Ewing returned to regular duty.

After the grand jury result, Laura White, an aunt who helped raise Truss, told the Mercury News: “If this is allowed to stand, the people in San Jose and this society had better watch out. Because every month, these trigger-happy police officers who have taken the oath to preserve and protect are going to be dropping people in the street right and left.”

Despite calls for an independent citizens committee to investigate the shooting, in June 1985 the San Jose City Council voted against the proposal after nearly two hours of testimony from attorneys, friends of Truss, and several police officers. According to the Mercury News, one of Truss’ classmates testified that Truss would never hurt anyone, “especially someone older than him and a lot bigger than him.”

During the council meeting, police in full uniform lined the walls of city hall, opposing the proposed independent investigation, according to Metro reports. White was especially angered by Assistant Police Chief Stan Horton, who said Truss “died because of his lifestyle.”

The legacy of Truss’s death

“No one will ever know what really happened at the time of the shooting,” stated Ken Yeager, a spokesperson for BAYMEC, said at the time “But it isn’t difficult to imagine the circumstances that created the situation in the first place, nor the attitudes of the policeman involved. This is what we find very frightening.”

“Our focus now is to call attention to the fact that police in San Jose seem to believe anyone who might be Lesbian or Gay is a criminal or in the process of committing a crime, notably solicitation or prostitution,” said Wiggsy Sivertsen, BAYMEC’s vice-president. “The ramifications of this are enormous.”

Upon request from BAYMEC, the San Jose City Council approved a program in June 1985 through which San Jose police officers would receive training on gay and lesbian lifestyle. The move was met by opposition from the police, as reported in the Mercury News. The training was done by Sivertsen,

Responding to community concerns, the Santa Clara County Human Relations Commission held a public hearing in August 1985. Youngblood, an advisor for James Lick’s Black Student Union, recalled the time when Truss participated in the group’s fall fashion show.

“He was scared to death on that stage and it was written all over his face, but he knew it was for a worthwhile cause and it was exciting for him too,” Youngblood told the commission. “Melvin was not capable of violence.”

In 1989, a federal jury cleared officer Paul Ewing of violating Truss’ civil rights in a civil suit brought by Truss’s mother.

Politics & Activism

Homophobic Assault on Bill Kiley Caught on Camera

william kiley attacked video

Content warning: homophobic violence.

On June 11, 1991, 42-year-old gay, civil rights activist William (Bill) Kiley was tending to the lawn of his San Jose rental property, just across the street from his home, when he became the victim of a hate crime. As Kiley finished watering his tenant’s lawn, he was approached by Joshua Huff, the swastika-sporting 17-year-old who lived next door with his parents. Huff complained to Kiley about grass clippings left on his driveway. Kiley told him he had swept up the grass clippings already, and if Huff would like to discuss the issue any further, he should go get his father. Huff responded with homophobic venom, spitting slurs at Kiley, and taunting him to fight. Kiley refused to respond to the provocation, instead asking Huff to get off his property.

That’s when Huff punched Kiley in the face. Kiley sprayed Huff with his hose to get him away, but Huff only removed his jacket, and yelled, “Come on fucking faggot!” over and over as he slammed his fists into Kiley’s face, and his feet into his chest and stomach. Eventually the neighbors began to gather, including Joshua Huff’s mother, Nancy Huff, who shouted, “What the fuck’s wrong with you, asshole? You fucker. You attacked my minor child.” The police were called to the scene, not by any of the onlooking neighbors, but by the Huffs, who reported that Kiley had attacked their son.

This was, of course, false. Luckily, Bill Kiley could prove it. Kiley had already suffered at length at the hands of his neighbors who repeatedly verbally harassed him with homophobic slurs and damaged his property. Knowing that he needed a way to prove this hate, Kiley set up a handheld camera in his living room window, and set it to record as he managed his rental property. He caught the entire crime on tape.

The tape and following legal proceedings received a frenzy of local and national media attention, spurred on by the timing of the case within the context of California hate crime legislation. With the first hate crime conviction in Santa Clara County taking place only weeks before this crime, the county was in the midst of crucial changes to address the growing problem. As a result, gay rights activists hoped that Kiley’s case would shed much needed light on the issue of hate crimes within the LGBTQ+ community.

Joshua Huff was convicted of three felony charges: felony assault, battery, and committing a hate crime. He was sentenced to 10 months at Santa Clara County Boys Ranch in Morgan Hill along with a requirement to complete substance abuse and reentry programs. This sentence (which was considerably lighter than the 7 years with the California Youth Authority he could have received) was criticized by many LGBTQ+ activists for doing nothing to address rehabilitating Huff for his violence and homophobia, which caused the crime to begin with. Huff’s parents sued Kiley’s lawyer, Paul Wotman, for defamation of character, but lost. Kiley also sued the Huff family for $20 million, a move meant to hold them responsible for their actions, as well as continue to draw attention to the issue of hate crimes.

In 1993, the case was heard by a Court of Appeal in San Jose. This was a landmark case because it proved for the first time that California’s “hate crimes” law does not violate the First Amendment. This statute allows for additional persecution of offenders who engage in these violent acts.

In reflection of these events, Kiley has left some of his thoughts on the criminal case and its lasting impact today:

It surprises me how much I had forgotten about the details and how it affected the state’s legal decisions where hate crimes are involved. In my situation, the District Attorney’s Office questioned trying a minor for assault of a gay man, even with the video. The question was, who was the aggressor and why or what brought about the hostility.

The common belief, at the time, was that if an older man was involved with a minor in an altercation then it was probably the result of a sexual advance (by the gay man). Fortunately, the video put a stop to that line of thought in my case. But, the question was brought to me by both the police and the DA’s people.

Also, while Paul Wotman got the credit for winning my case against the Huffs. The real trial was in the Santa Clara [sic] Superior Court getting a conviction for the hate crime charge. That was brought about by some great work by a group of women in the Prosecutor’s Office. I think they were as concerned about the White Supremacist aspect as the anti-gay epithets/attack. I didn’t get the names of those women but they had a lot of behind the scenes arm twisting with their bosses in order to take my case to trial. It didn’t hurt that Mayor Susan Hammer saw the prosecution as a step forward for the City of San Jose.