Across the street from the historic Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village in a small gated area called Christopher Park, stands the Gay Liberation Monument—a sculpture depicting a seated lesbian couple and a gay male couple standing. The couples are innocently yet affectionately touching each other. If you’ve made a pilgrimage to Stonewall, you’ve undoubtedly seen the sculpture. What you may not know is that it was commissioned by a janitor in Houma, Louisiana.
Meet Dr. Peter Putnum—physicist, publisher, philosopher, philanthropist, and janitor. Dr. Putnum is one of the most fascinating, consequential, and least well-known, gay men of the twentieth century. Born in 1927 in Cleveland, to John and Mildred Putnum, he earned a doctoral degree in physics at Princeton University where he trained under Albert Einstein.
His parents insisted he become a lawyer, so he enrolled in the Yale Law School, but he was more interested in cosmology and moral philosophy. He left Yale after two years and took a part-time job with an electronics firm in order to have time to cultivate a rich intellectual life. His salary was more than he needed, and he gave the surplus to Princeton. He eventually took a teaching position at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and later at Union Theological seminary. He wrote a lot, mostly academic papers, but never showed much interest in publishing them.
Born into money, Putnum lived a spartan existence, never succumbing to materialism. Once his mother gifted him a Cadillac but Putnum refused it. He wore old clothes that had faded out of style. His lifelong friend, John Wheeler once said, “He didn’t like the trappings of wealth.”
Putnam made wise investments and earned a fortune to add to the one he inherited, but he gave most of it away to causes about which he cared. To memorialize his brother, a fighter pilot in World War II, Putnam donated a sculpture garden to Princeton in his name. The garden features works by artists such as Pablo Picasso, Jacques Lipchitz, Henry Moore, Gaston Lachaise, Tony Smith, Louise Nevelson, Alexander Calder, and Isamu Noguchi.
He also gave $32 million to the Nature Conservatory, which buys and protects lands that harbor endangered plants and animals, including Little Pecan Island in Southern Louisiana. And he financed the Gay Liberation Monument at Stonewall, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
In 1974, he volunteered with VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), a government program founded in 1964 to improve the living conditions of people living in poverty. VISTA sent Putnum, and his partner John Claude DeBrew, to Louisiana to help the rural poor in Houma. To his disillusionment, he found the VISTA program in Houma corrupt and resigned. He then took a job as a janitor and night-watchman at a building owned by the State Department of Transportation. He and his lover rented a modest apartment where he wrote poetry and financed the Good Earth Press, which distributed books throughout South Louisiana in the 1970s. Putnam was killed in 1987 when a drunk driver hit him as he rode his bicycle to work.
Thus ended the strange and compelling life of Dr. Peter Putnum. Putnum’s legacy is profound as well as far-reaching, which brings me back to the Gay Liberation Monument. In 1979, on the tenth anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, Putnam and DeBrew decided to mark the anniversary by commissioning a work of art. Putnum’s only requirement was that it 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.”
The selection of sculptor George Segal to create the monument was not without controversy. Some felt that a gay artist should have been chosen for the commission. Segal, a native New Yorker, has produced a sculpture that can be found in more than 65 public collections, including The Holocaust in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
The Gay Liberation statues are bronze covered in white lacquer. Segal later noted, “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 sexual orientation of the artist was only the beginning of the controversy. Completed in 1980, some New Yorkers objected to the artwork’s loving depiction of gay folk. Consequently, the piece remained unseen by the public until 1986, when it was installed in Orton Park in Madison, Wisconsin, before being relocated to New York in 1992.
In 2015, two anonymous activists, “two queer and gender non-conforming women in their 20s, one white and one a Latina immigrant” according to autostraddle.com, painted two of the figures’ faces brown to protest the way the statues “white- and cis- wash a movement led by black and brown queer and trans people.” The activists were responding to calls from Miss Major, a “legendary black trans elder in New York” who said in an autostraddle.com interview with trans editor Mey, “Someone should smash those motherfuckers up and turn them into the white dust that they are and put a couple of statues of people of color and at least make one of them an overly obnoxious transgender woman 6’5′, three inch heels, blond/red hair, lashes, beads, feathers and put one of those fine white boys next to her, now that I can handle!”
Putnum would have been puzzled by the act of vandalism. He was far from a racist, his life-partner was black, and he consistently shed the privilege he was born into. His chief concern in commissioning the monument was that it capture gay and lesbian people’s humanity, not their race.