*originally posted October 7, 2009
It happened seventy-five years ago. I must have missed it because I was but a wee lad back in '24. I kid, because I can. But it's true; way back in the last century, in 1924, the first American homosexual rights organization was founded in Chicago.
The Society for Human Rights was founded by Henry Gerber, and was the first recognized gay rights organization in the United States--apparently, before 1924, we were unrecognizable. But Gerber's group received a charter from the state of Illinois, and produced the first American publication for homosexuals, Friendship and Freedom.
Henry Gerber emigrated from Germany in 1913, settling with his family in Chicago because of its large German-speaking population. Within a few years of his arrival he experienced discrimination based on his sexual orientation when he was temporarily committed to a mental institution for being homosexual.
During World War I, Gerber served as an Army printer and proofreader in Coblenz, Germany, and it was there that he learned of Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld and the work he was doing to reform anti-homosexual German law--most notably Paragraph 175, which criminalized sex between men.
Travelling to Berlin, where there was a thriving gay subculture, Gerber wrote:
"I had always bitterly felt the injustice with which my own American society accused the homosexual of ‘immoral acts.’ What could be done about it, I thought. Unlike Germany, where the homosexual was partially organized and where sex legislation was uniform for the whole country, the United States was in a condition of chaos and misunderstanding concerning its sex laws, and no one was trying to unravel the tangle and bring relief to the abused."
Inspired by Hirschfeld's work, Gerber resolved to found a similar organization in the United States, calling it the Society for Human Rights. Gerber filed an application for a charter as a non-profit organization with the state of Illinois. The application outlined the goals and purposes of the Society:
[T]o promote and protect the interests of people who by reasons of mental and physical abnormalities are abused and hindered in the legal pursuit of happiness which is guaranteed them by the Declaration of Independence and to combat the public prejudices against them by dissemination of factors according to modern science among intellectuals of mature age. The Society stands only for law and order; it is in harmony with any and all general laws insofar as they protect the rights of others, and does in no manner recommend any acts in violation of present laws nor advocate any manner inimical to the public welfare.
An African American clergyman, yes, a man of the cloth, John T. Graves, signed on as president of the new organization and Gerber, Graves and five others were listed as directors. In 1924, Illinois granted the group its charter, making it the oldest documented homosexual organization in the nation. The group was surprised by the ease with which they were granted a charter. Though they had deliberately kept the goals of the Society vague and excluded any mention of homosexuality from their mission statement, Gerber was nonetheless surprised that no one investigated before issuing the charter.
The society's newsletter, Friendship and Freedom, was the first gay-interest publication in the United States. However, few Society members were willing to receive mailings of the newsletter, fearing that postal inspectors would deem the publication obscene under the Comstock Act--all gay-interest publications were declared obscene until 1958. Only two issues of Friendship and Freedom were written and produced, entirely by Gerber. No copies of the newsletter are known to exist today.
Gerber had high hopes of expanding membership in the society, but he was unable to gain any support, financially or otherwise, from the more affluent members of Chicago's gay community. Gerber sought out the support of people in the medical professions and sex education advocates and was frustrated when he was unable to secure it because of their fear of ruining their reputations through the association with homosexuality.
Reflecting on this failure in 1962, Gerber said:
The first difficulty was in rounding up enough members and contributors so the work could go forward. The average homosexual, I found, was ignorant concerning himself. Others were fearful. Still others were frantic or depraved. Some were blasé. Many homosexuals told me that their search for forbidden fruit was the real spice of life. With this argument, they rejected our aims. We wondered how we could accomplish anything with such resistance from our own people.
Since he couldn't count on support from the deeply closeted gay community, Gerber shouldered the burden of labor and financial obligations for the Society and for production of Friendship and Freedom; he was willing to do this because he deeply believed it was necessary for all gay men and women to be recognized as equal citizens in America.
The end of the society came, not from outside interests, but from within. Gerber and Graves did not realize that Al Weininger, the Society's vice-president, was married man and the father of two children. Weininger's wife reported the Society to a social worker in the summer of 1925, calling them "degenerates" and making claims of "strange doings" in front of her children.
The police, along with a reporter from the Chicago Examiner, broke in on Gerber in the middle of the night. They interrogated him, seized his personal papers and arrested him. The next morning, Gerber learned that Graves, Weininger and his male companion, had also been arrested. The Examiner reported the story under the headline "Strange Sex Cult Exposed," and erroneously reported that Weininger and other members of the Society had performed sex acts in front of Weininger's children and that Society literature encouraged men to abandon their wives and children. This latter statement was in direct contradiction to the Society's policy of only admitting men who were exclusively homosexual.
Gerber was tried three times before charges against him were dismissed because he was arrested without a warrant. His defense cost him his life savings, some which may have been in the form of bribes paid through his lawyer. The police never returned Gerber's personal papers, his typewriter or his remaining copies of Friendship and Freedom despite a court order compelling their return.
While he avoided prosecution for obscenity under the Comstock Act, Gerber lost his post office job for "conduct unbecoming a postal worker". Weininger, however, since he was a husband and father apparently, only paid a $10 fine for "disorderly conduct". Gerber felt he had hit a "solid wall of ignorance, hypocrisy, meanness and corruption" and, unable to continue his financial support, the Society was destroyed.
Although it hadn't lasted long, Henry Gerber and the Society for Human Rights lead the way in the creation of other groups around the country. In 1929, a young man named Harry Hay was living in Los Angeles where he met Champ Simmons, a man who had been a lover of one of Gerber's Society compatriots. This man told Hay about the Society, warning Hay of the futility of trying to organize gay men.
Although Hay would later deny that he had any knowledge of previous LGBT activism, including the Society for Human Rights, he was inspired by this knowledge to conceive in 1948 a proposal for a gay men's political and social group and, in 1950, Hay and several other men founded the Mattachine Society, the first enduring LGBT rights organization in the United States.
Gerber was posthumously inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 1992. The Henry Gerber House, located at 1710 N. Crilly Court, Chicago, contains the apartment in which Gerber lived when he founded the Society. It was designated a Chicago Landmark on June 1, 2001. The Gerber/Hart Library at 1127 West Granville Avenue is named in honor of Gerber and early civil rights defender Pearl M. Hart.
Each step, each group, each tiny protest, is a brick along the path toward gay rights. Would we be where we are today with Gerber and his society? Maybe so, but we wouldn't have that history of struggle to fall back upon as we continue to fight. We wouldn't be able to stand taller now without the shoulders of men like Henry Gerber.
|On This Day In LGBT History|
October 7, 1728 – Charles Genevieve Louise Auguste Andre Timothee d’Eon was born in Burgundy, France. The name was a mouthful, and the Chevalier d’Eon’s life was hard to swallow. But the strange story is true. An adventurer, he did drag for a court ball. Louis XV was so impressed with the chevalier’s beauty that he decreed he must dress as a woman for ever more. Throughout the years, people forgot she was a he. d’Eon was French spy throughout Europe. When he returned to court, no one would believe he was a man. Bets were taken but the truth came out only after he died and the body was examined.
October 7, 1943 – Author Radclyffe Hall died. Hall’s novel “The Well of Loneliness” was banned in several countries because of lesbian content.
October 7, 1959 – During a radio speech, Russell L. Wolden criticized the mayor of San Francisco. “Under the benign attitude of the Christopher administration, those who practice sex deviation operate in San Francisco today to a shocking extent, under shocking circumstances, and in open and flagrant defiance of the law. So favorable is the official San Francisco climate for the activities of these persons that an organization of sex deviates known as The Mattachine Society actually passed a resolution praising Mayor Christopher by name for what the resolution described as the enlightened attitude of his administration toward them.”
October 7, 1964 – The Northwestern Homosexual Law Reform Committee was formally launched with a semi-public meeting in Manchester England.
October 7, 1964 – Walter Jenkins, Lyndon B. Johnson’s trusted friend and top advisor, was arrested for having sex in a YMCA men’s room only blocks away from the White House.
October 7, 1975 – Musician Elton John said he was bisexual in Rolling Stone magazine.
October 7, 1981 – In Toronto, a Dykes in the Street march, sponsored by Lesbians Against the Right becomes the first lesbian pride march in the city.
October 7, 1987 – A US Justice Department report declared the most frequent victims of hate crimes are gays, lesbians, and bisexuals.
October 7, 1993 – A protest, complete with a book burning, was held to object to a donation of two gay themed books. “Annie on My Mind” and “All-American Boys” to 42 Kansas City Missouri high schools.
October 7, 1993 – The AFL-CIO unanimously approved a resolution to actively oppose attempts to repeal gay rights laws. The vote was held at the labor union’s biennial convention in San Francisco.
October 7, 1996 – 250 students in Elizabethtown Pennsylvania walked out of class to protest the school board’s passage of a “pro-family” resolution which banned positive discussion of homosexuality.