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

Stanford’s Old Firehouse

Photo Cole Griffiths The Stanford Daily

Stanford’s Old Fire Truck House became a hub for LGBTQ students and community members alike – one of the first campus organizations of its kind nationally. 

Built in 1904, the aptly named structure transitioned in the 1970s from housing fire trucks to community meetings for those who were queer, questioning or allies to connect and politically organize. Despite a history of name changes – from the original Gay People’s Union to today’s QSpot – students have walked up the Firehouse’s steep outdoor steps to find a community of their own on the second floor. 

Stanford has a piecemeal history with gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer people, dating back to the first documented relationship in 1911. 

However, organization started coming to a head in the 1960s, when folks began creating forums and discussion groups dedicated to the exploration of sexual rights, including civil rights for homosexuals. By November 1970, a Stanford Gay Students Union was formed off-campus by students and community members.

This idea stuck. The Gay People’s Union officially began in December 1971 with a desk in the Old Union Clubhouse. Founded by Maud Hanson Nerman and Fred Oakford, the movement started with the intent to be accessible to the entire Palo Alto community. 

Its members began efforts to provide personal outreach, mentorship, mental health counseling and support groups geared to gay students, especially through smaller groups like the Women’s Collective and the Gay and Lesbian Speakers Bureau. 

This was risky business at a time when students and faculty feared facing retribution for being gay from Stanford, including expulsion or termination. Non-campus locations were originally considered for safety concerns. 

The Gay People’s Union found a permanent home in the Old Firehouse in the fall of 1974, growing from a small office to claiming the entire second floor of the building along Santa Teresa Street. 

Within its early years, GPU’s work catalyzed the formation of state-funded mental health programs for the Bay Area gay community, the first gay and lesbian awareness week held on campus, hiring of openly gay faculty and an unsuccessful campaign to exclude discriminatory employers from Stanford’s Career Planning and Placement Center.

Four members carried a GPU banner within the first National March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights by October 1979.

Despite growing recognition of the LGBTQ community in the Bay Area and beyond, progress wasn’t entirely met with open arms. Notably, the campus’ “Gay Liberation” statues were repeatedly vandalized with hammers and spray paint. 

As tensions heightened in the 1980s during the AIDS crisis, the Firehouse’s community worked to provide practical and emotional supporters for people with AIDS, increase visibility with Gay Family Days and simply educate others that queer people spanned the entire campus, including students living in dorms, teachers and entertainers.

Known as the Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Community Center by 1989, students continued political activism throughout the 1990s, planning “Queer Be-Ins” at local coffee houses, establishing student orientation celebrations and hosting queer graduation events. 

Despite the Old Firehouse’s consistent, decades-long presence, all of its opportunities and events were solely student-driven and supported by staff because it remained unrecognized as an official community center by Stanford. 

Stanford eventually provided a full-time director for the LGBCC in 1999, after student requests and task force studies, which allowed for increased access to resources and targeted programming. 

The organization was renamed the LGBT Community Resources Center in 2001 to increase transgender representation, and later morphed into the Queer Student Resource Center, or QSpot, by 2017.