Henry Gerber (1892-1972) was an American activist who founded the Society of Human Rights, America’s first Gay rights organization, 45 years before Stonewall and decades before the first US national organization, the Mattachine Society.
Gerber was born in the German state of Bavaria as Josef Henry Dittmar. In 1913, he moved to Chicago, where he was committed to an insane asylum in 1917 because of his same-sex orientation. Due to national paranoia against Germans during World War I, he was given the choice of internment or the US Army. He worked as a printer and proofreader, and was stationed in Germany during the Allied Army occupation when Germany lost the war. He visited pre-Nazi Berlin and saw for himself a thriving, open Gay community. The experience inspired him to bring this openness to the USA.
The Society for Human Rights was founded in Chicago by Gerber in 1924. He modeled the SHR after German Gay rights activist Magnus Hirschfeld and Hirschfeld’s organization for Gay people, the Bund fur Menschenrect.
Gerber had difficulty finding enough people willing to put their names on a petition to the State of Illinois for a legally recognized charter of the SHR. With four active members, the SHR succeeded in getting a charter, and proceeded to print Friendship and Freedom, an early publication advocating for the rights of homosexuals. The SHR was shut down after three of the four active members were arrested a few months after it started. On the day he was taken into custody, Gerber answered a knock on his door, and the arresting detective asked where the boy was, insinuating that Gerber was having sex with an underaged male. Evidence presented by the police against Gerber consisted of a short diary entry (“I love Karl”) and a powder puff for applying facial makeup that the detective claimed had been found in Gerber’s residence.
The behavior of the detective in both the arrest and the production of evidence illustrates the links made in popular imagination between homosexuality, effeminacy (powder puff), and pedophilia (assuming Gerber would be caught in the act with a boy). It also foreshadowed the knee-jerk reaction of Gerber’s superiors and the first judge he faced – all reacted negatively and without reason. The arresting detective asked him, “What was the idea for the Society of Human Rights anyway? Was it to give you birds the legal right to rape every boy on the street?” Although charges were dropped for lack of evidence (with the second judge), Gerber lost his job in the Postal Service and was financially ruined.
Gerber rejoined the US Army, and retired with honors after World War II. He wrote articles for ONE Magazine, a Gay periodical that arose years after Friendship and Freedom, and was recognized as the earliest American on record to organize for Gay rights.
Henry Gerber on Community Apathy
The first difficulty was in rounding up enough members and contributors so the work could go forward. The average [male] 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 [cruising for men] 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.
The Gerber/Hart Library, an LGBTQ archive in Chicago, is named after him, and his home in Chicago on 1710 North Crilly Court was designated an historical landmark by the city.
He is buried at the US Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery
in Washington, (Section Q, Plot 833).
Baim, Tracy. Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of the City’s Gay Community. E-book: Agate Publishing, 2008.