Not Everyone Was Brave: Henry Gerber and the Beginning of the Gay Rights Movement in Chicago: Part II
Part II: The Henry Gerber Story Continues
At 2:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning in 1925, Henry Gerber answered a knock on his door. When he opened it, there stood a newspaper man and a city detective who demanded to see “the boy”. Of course, there was no boy, but the detective arrested Henry Gerber for indecent behavior anyway. He took his typewriter, notary public certificate, all the SHR literature, personal diaries, and bookkeeping accounts. He never showed a warrant for the arrest or the confiscation of property.
At the police station, Gerber was locked in a cell with no charges filed against him. He remained in lockup all night. The next morning, he was allowed a phone call to explain why he would not be coming to work. The supervisor tried to cover for him by writing down that Gerber was “absent on leave.” Gerber was then taken to the Chicago Avenue Police Court. John, the preacher; Al, the laundry queen, and a young man who happened to be with Al at the time of the arrest were there. None of them was told why they were being detained. Finally, a sympathetic guard showed them a copy of the July 13, 1925, edition of The Chicago American. The headline read, “Girl Reveals Strange Cult Run by Dad.” The girl was Al Meininger’s 12-year old daughter Betty. In the article, she said that her father carried on meetings in their home in which men held séances and performed strange rites in front of his wife and children. Meininger’s wife reported the carryings on to a social worker. The article went on to say that when police raided Al’s apartment, they found the Reverend John Graves, Henry Gerber, and a young man. They arrested all of them. They also claimed to have found a copy of “Friendship and Freedom” that urged men to leave their wives and children to join homosexual organizations.
Gerber tried to explain that the article was pure fabrication. John was alone in his apartment at the time of his arrest, as was Gerber. Neither was with Al, whom they did not even know was married. And they had no idea who the boy was. No one would listen to him. He protested that the proceedings were illegal since no warrants had been shown, and there was no proof of any of the allegations. Unfortunately, under questioning, Al had confessed to his bisexuality.
During the trial, the detective presented a powder puff he said he found in Gerber’s room as proof of his homosexuality. It was the only evidence of the “crime” ever produced. At the trial, the social worker contacted by Al’s wife, whom Gerber described as a “hatchet-faced female”, was asked to read—out of context—a phrase that said, “I love Karl”. That was all the judge and jury needed to convince them of Gerber's depravity. On the basis of a planted powder puff and an isolated sentence written in a review of a book by Karl Marx, Henry Gerber was found guilty of the crime of homosexuality.
Two more trials followed. At the second, the attorney for the “deviant three” demanded a mistrial on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence to hold the men. The judge told the attorney to shut up or be held in contempt. The judge did agree to set bail at $1,000 each for the defendants—which was paid. Once out on bail, Gerber reported for work, only to be told that he had been suspended.
A third trial was held when Gerber retained another attorney who promised to get the men a fair shake. On the day of the trial, the three appeared before a new presiding judge. Also present in the courtroom were the arresting detectives and the postal inspectors who accused the men of “infecting God’s own country with their filthy literature.” The social worker chose not to attend.
This time, the men did get a fair trial. The new judge reprimanded the prosecution for arresting the men without warrants and for insufficient evidence. He ordered the case dismissed and directed the detective to return Gerber’s property. He got back his typewriter, but not his diaries, which had been turned over to the postal inspectors. Gerber never again put anything remotely incriminating in his diaries. Neither Gerber nor John was fined—but Al had to pay ten dollars after pleading to “disorderly conduct.”
What Happens to a Dream Deferred?
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up, like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—and then run.
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode. Langston Hughes
In 1927, Gerber left Chicago for good. He went to New York where a friend encouraged him to reenlist. The army did not delve into its recruits’ sexual histories back then, so Gerber was able to serve until 1945, when he received an honorable discharge and a pension of $100 per month.
Gerber retired from the army as a staff sergeant after serving in both World War I and World War II. He returned to New York and became part of the gay community there. He ran a pen pal service called “Contacts”, which had about two hundred members, both gay and heterosexual. His advertisement for contributors to “Contacts” read: “NYC male 44, proofreader, single. Favored by nature with immunity to female charms, but does not hate women.” He published a literary magazine called Chanticleer, in which he expressed his views on politicians and priests. He also wrote on gay issues for a number of publications under a pseudonym, Parisex. The most noteworthy was “ONE”, which came out of the Matachine Society in the 1950s, the first gay rights society after the SHR. “ONE” was the successor to “Friendship and Freedom”. In 1958, the group won an important First Amendment case before the Supreme Court. The Court ruled that publishing homosexual content did not mean the content was automatically obscene.
Henry Gerber spent his last years in the Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home in Washington, D.C. where he worked on his memoirs and translations of German novels. He died on December 31, 1972, at the age of eighty.
The Legacy of Henry Gerber
How do we sum up the life of this crotchety Bavarian godfather of the modern gay rights movement in the United States? He was a very complex man—passionate about human rights and individual self-expression, but different from many of his homosexual contemporaries. He did not drink or smoke—nor did he associate with other gays in bars or clubs. He was not particularly fond of women and did not approve of lesbians. He was an introvert who enjoyed music and reading. Though he was brought up Catholic, he denounced religion as a “racket”, saying God loved atheists because they didn’t bother him with silly prayers. He disliked smut and pornography and considered himself civilized and self-sufficient. He did not form sexual attachments—was mostly interested in quick, anonymous sex in theaters. He suffered periodic beatings, theft, and blackmail. He was constantly being harassed by postal snoops. At great personal risk, he wrote and published a paper in 1934 denouncing Hitler’s persecution of homosexuals. He defied popular thinking to promote and protect the interests of people who ”...by reasons of mental and physical abnormalities were abused and hindered in the legal pursuit of happiness, guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence.” He was a link between the homophile-related activities of the Weimar Republic and the American homophile movement of the 1950s. He did not, like Lincoln, emancipate a people from the bondage of bigotry and persecution; but he tried.
In 1981, the Midwest Gay and Lesbian Archive and Library honored Gerber and lesbian attorney Pearl Hart by changing its name to the Henry Gerber-Pearl Hart Library. He was posthumously inducted into the Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 1992. And he was made a local hero in 2000 when Chicago singled out Gerber for an honor beyond what the city had, to that date, showered on its more famous residents such as Carl Sandburg, Muddy Waters, or Walt Disney. The Commission on Landmarks recommended that Gerber’s former residence at 1710 N. Crilly Court be given landmark status. Some questioned if Gerber’s work to promote homosexual rights deserved such recognition. Members of the Commission did the research and concluded that it did. The City Council agreed, and on June 1, 2001, 1710 became the Henry Gerber House and was designated a Chicago landmark. A movement is now underway to have it declared a national landmark. A fitting tribute for a man who followed his convictions at a time when not everyone was brave.
Filed under: Living in Interesting Times