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On the Enduring Legacy of “Gay Liberation,” a Sculpture by George Segal (BA ’49)

George Segal’s Gay Liberation sculpture of two couples

George Segal’s "Gay Liberation" monument was considered radical for its time.

The sculpture, Gay Liberation, was created by George Segal (BA ’49), who earned a degree in art education from NYU’s School of Education.

Now part of the Stonewall National Monument,  Gay Liberation sits in Christopher Park, across the street from the Stonewall Inn. It was commissioned in 1979 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, which gave rise to the modern gay rights movement.

The work is comprised of four life-size bronze figures painted white:  two women seated on a 16-foot steel bench and two men standing together in front of it. Dedicated by President Barak Obama in 2016, it is the first national monument in the United States to tell the story of the struggle for LGBTQ rights.

Segal, who created public works memorializing the Holocaust and the Kent State Massacre, accepted a commission from physicist and philanthropist Peter Putnam, through his mother’s foundation, the Mildred Andrews Fund. 

When approached, the artist was reluctant to accept the $60,000 commission for the monument, telling a New York Times reporter, that “since I’m an unregenerate heterosexual, my first reaction was that a gay artist should do it.”

Ultimately, he agreed, noting that “living in the art world” had made him “extremely sympathetic to the problems that gay people have."

A portrait of George Segal leaning on his car.

George Segal in front of the truck he used in the 1960s to deliver his work to galleries. (Photo courtesy of Rena Segal).

Of the finished sculpture, Segal said, “it concentrates on tenderness, gentleness, and sensitivity as expressed in gesture…and makes the delicate point that gay people are as feeling as anyone else.” 

Intended for installation in Sheridan Square, Gay Liberation proved too controversial for the neighborhood and spent five years on display in Orton Park in Madison, Wisconsin. (It was returned to New York in 1991.)

A second casting of the sculpture, installed on Stanford University’s Main Quad, was damaged in 1984 when, according to the New York Times, a “hammer-wielding vandal” dented each of the “four homosexuals…in the head, face, and body with a barrage of about 40 blows.”

On June 23, 1992, New York City Mayor David Dinkins and Parks Commissioner Betsy Gotbaum unveiled the Gay Liberation monument in Christoper Park, ending a 12-year battle of political opposition.

Though the models for Gay Liberation were gay couples known by the artist, many have criticized the installation for narrowly representing the diversity of the LGBTQ community and presenting a conventional, bourgeois image of homosexuality to the public.

But perhaps, the sculpture is nothing more than what it is:  an artist’s  vision of two couples out in the open, free from public censure, enjoying their time together in the park.