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.
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.