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George Segal's Gay Liberation  
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In 1979, pop sculptor George Segal was commissioned by the Mildred Andrews Fund, a private Cleveland-based foundation that supports public art, to create a work that would commemorate New York City's Stonewall Rebellion, the 1969 riot that conveniently (if somewhat simplistically) marks the beginning of the modern gay liberation movement.

The result was the first piece of public art commemorating the struggle of glbtq people for equality, predating Amsterdam's "Homomonument" by some seven years.

Tellingly, Segal's sculpture has, from the very beginning, been at the center of controversy and suffered the kinds of assaults and bashings that glbtq people themselves have all too often experienced.

The Sculpture

The sculpture, a life-like, life-size bronze group, painted white, depicts four figures: a standing male couple and a seated female couple. One of the men holds the shoulder of his partner; one of the seated women gently touches her friend's thigh. The poses are non-dramatic, but quietly powerful, suggesting depths of love and companionship.

Segal's aim in his depiction of the couples was to normalize and domesticize homosexual relationships, rescuing them from the sensationalized, over-sexualized images so common in the popular media. At the same time, however, Segal emphasizes the physical element of relationships. The partners' soulful gazing into each other's eyes symbolizes commitment and communion, but their touching represents physical intimacy.

As David Lindsey has observed, "'Gay Liberation' is all about touch and tender, affirmative embrace."

The artist himself remarked, "The sculpture concentrates on tenderness, gentleness and sensitivity as expressed in gesture. It makes the delicate point that gay people are as feeling as anyone else."

The political significance of the mundane reality of loving couples is suggested by the title, "Gay Liberation."

Segal's choice to define gay liberation in terms of ordinary, committed relationships is itself profoundly political. It quietly but unmistakably affirms the unexceptionable observation that the aspirations of gay men and lesbians are no different from those of heterosexual couples. The personal is made political in this case not by the artist or by the couples, but by the social and legal prohibitions against the most basic of human needs, the need to love and be loved.

Some critics complained that the figures appear too sad, but the complex interior life the figures display expresses, at least in part, the ambiguous place gay men and lesbians occupy in the American public consciousness, surely cause enough for sadness.

The subsequent history of the sculpture illustrates the difficulties some people have in accepting even so elemental a premise as the humanity of glbtq people, as well as the impossibility of satisfying completely the needs of a diverse and sometimes divided community.

The Controversy

The idea for a sculpture to honor the gay and lesbian rights movement on the tenth anniversary of Stonewall originated with Bruce Voeller (1944-1994), co-founder and first executive director of the National Gay Rights Task Force and the founder of the Mariposa Foundation.

Voeller approached Peter Putnam (1925-1987), an eccentric philanthropist who had established the Mildred Andrews Fund in honor of his mother, to finance the project. The terms for the commission specified only that the work "had to be loving and caring, and show the affection that is the hallmark of gay people. . . . And it had to have equal representation of men and women."

In addition, Putnam insisted that the memorial be installed on public land or nowhere at all.

Segal was, at first, uncertain about accepting the project. His initial reaction was that the sculpture should be done by a gay artist. But he finally concluded, "I'm extremely sympathetic to the problems that gay people have. They're human beings first. I couldn't refuse to do it."

The plan was to create two castings of "Gay Liberation" and to install them in two locations, in New York City's Sheridan Park, near the site of the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, where the events of the summer of 1969 launched the gay liberation movement, and in Los Angeles.

However, even the famously liberal Village was not ready for gay liberation, at least in 1980. Although the sculpture was intended as a gift to the city, it had to be approved by a host of city organizations and community groups. Most of the Greenwich Village political leaders, including Representatives Theodore Weiss and Bella Abzug, endorsed the project, as did the Village Voice newspaper and the city's Director of Historic Parks.

However, many local residents opposed the plans for the installation. Some, mostly Italian Catholics, frankly objected to the subject matter, as they also objected to the gay men and lesbians who were moving into their neighborhood and changing its character. Others objected ostensibly on the grounds that the sculpture was too large for the park, that it was inappropriate to the neighborhood's architecture, and that it would attract undesirable elements and "ghettoize" the area.

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George Segal's Gay Liberation in New York's Sheridan Park (top) and on the campus of Stanford University.
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