Not Everyone Was Brave: Henry Gerber and the Beginning of the Gay Rights Movement in Chicago
( Note: a while back, I did a series on remarkable women. Now, I’d like to give the men equal time with essays on a few remarkable men who made a difference.)
Henry Gerber was not a lovable, or even a likeable man. But he was a brave one. In a time when no one dared even admit to homosexuality, Henry Gerber acknowledged his and advocated for the right of every human being to follow his or her own sexual predisposition openly and without fear of reprisal. He was a visionary whose vision was more than fifty years premature.
Who Was Henry Gerber?
Henry Gerber was born Josef Henry Dittmar in Bavaria in 1892. He immigrated to the United States with his parents in 1913. Landing first at Ellis Island, the family moved on to Chicago to join the large German Catholic population there.
In Chicago Josef got a job working for the old Montgomery Ward Company and changed his name to Henry Gerber. Gerber was not an ordinary young German immigrant. He was homosexual, a condition that got him briefly committed to a mental institution. With the outbreak of World War in 1914, Gerber enlisted in the army and served without incident until the U.S. entered the War in 1917. Then a rumor circulated about German spies operating in the country. The United States promptly opened prisoner-of-war internment camps. The fifty thousand unnaturalized German immigrants living in the U.S., were considered enemy aliens. Among the eight thousand “aliens” arrested in Chicago was Henry Gerber. He was sent to Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, where he remained incarcerated until the war ended.
In 1919, when Gerber was released from the camp, he reenlisted in the army and was assigned to the AMAROC News Company with the U.S. Army of Occupation based in Coblenz, Germany. Amaroc News was the daily newspaper of the American forces based in Germany from 1919 to 1923. The News published items that would appeal to Americans serving abroad: short stories by O. Henry, poetry written by the soldiers themselves, film reviews, news from home, and sports stories about the exploits of legendary baseball player Babe Ruth and boxer Jack Dempsey. Gerber was ideally suited for this job since the paper was published in English but was printed on German typesetting machines operated by German printers. Henry Gerber was one of the few staff members who could speak German. When Amorac ended its publication in 1923, the staff returned to the United States. Gerber stayed behind to help liquidate the paper.
While serving in Coblenz, Gerber discovered the writings of Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, the world renowned authority on sexology and Director of the Institute of Sexual Science in Berlin. Hirschfeld had established the Scientific Humanitarian Society which was working to reform anti-homosexual German law. When Gerber went to Berlin to learn more about the Society, he found a thriving gay subculture; and he experienced an “aha” moment. “Why not?” he asked himself. If this can happen in Germany, why not in the United States? Why not in Chicago? He saw himself as an emancipator of the downtrodden. Just as Lincoln had emancipated the slaves, he, Henry Gerber, would go down in history as the man who freed the homosexual population. No more mental institutions, no more fear of incarceration, and no more clandestine meetings. He would create a society that recognized the rights of all human beings—not just homosexuals. He would call his group The Society for Human Rights, and he would incorporate Hirschfeld’s ideas about universal freedom.
Sweet Home Chicago
Henry Gerber returned to Chicago with a head full of ideas and dreams. Unfortunately, Chicago wasn’t Germany. Even Germany would not be the same in a few years when the Nazis came to power and Hitler put Hirschfeld on his hit list. But, that’s another story.
Gerber got a job with the postal service and rented a room at 1710 N. Crilly Court, part of a Queen Anne-style row built in 1885 by Daniel Crilly as rentals for young couples with children. After the War, Crilly Court fell on hard times. The houses became tenements whose landladies sat barefoot on the steps tossing bones to dogs in the front yards. Two operated openly as brothels. Who knows how Gerber found his way to Crilly Court? But he arrived in December 1924, ready to organize his Society. He tried to network with other sex reform leaders to create a united front against discrimination. He called on Margaret Sanger, the American birth control advocate. But they took an instant dislike to each other. When other attempts proved just as futile, Gerber pushed ahead on his own. He applied for a charter from the State of Illinois to establish a Society for Human Rights (SHR) whose purpose was to:
Promote and to 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 facts 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 matter inimical to the public welfare.
The words gay and homosexual were not mentioned, so no one bothered to investigate the organization beyond its stated purpose. The charter was granted.
Not Everyone Was Brave
Henry Gerber had a two-pronged strategy for ending discrimination against homosexuals (1) change the life styles and attitudes of homosexuals toward themselves, and (2) abolish the laws that persecuted them. Gerber thought too many homosexuals were “…fearful, frantic, blasé, and even depraved—opting to search for forbidden fruit rather than pursue personal free expression.” They needed to understand that homosexuality was not an illness or a psychiatric condition. Neither was it unnatural. Once they developed a sense of identity and self-respect, they could unite to fight discriminatory legislation.
While Gerber knew what he wanted to do, he did not know how to fly in the face of strongly entrenched opposition. Even the great Clarence Darrow recognized the gravity of the situation: “…no other offence has ever been visited with such severe penalties as seeking to bring help to this oppressed [group].” Open activity would bring him in conflict with the law, and he would probably end up in jail. He was not afraid of going to jail, but being locked up would not further his cause.
In Germany, the homophile movement had succeeded because it attracted the support of enlightened politicians, doctors, scientists, and artists. Gerber believed professional men in Chicago’s homosexual community who had been forced to meet secretly would welcome the opportunity to be part of a reputable organization of like-minded individuals. But Chicago’s gay professionals were not so brave. Associating with a society of homosexuals could tarnish their reputations, ruin their livelihoods, and cause them to be disowned by their families. When Gerber wrote asking for their support, they ignored him.
The Society never attracted more than a few members, and they were poor people who had no influence. John Graves, the president of the organization, was a black minister who earned his living by preaching to small groups of African Americans about brotherly love. The vice-president was Al Meininger, an indigent “laundry queen”, a name given by the military to men who did laundry as opposed to more manly work. The treasurer was Ralph Ellsworth Booher who worked for the railroad and was in constant fear of losing his job. Not exactly the group Henry had hoped would lead a revolution.
Shortly after the society’s incorporation, Gerber started the first gay-interest publication in the United States, a newsletter he called “Friendship and Freedom.” It contained a three-point plan for attracting members:
- Engage in a series of lectures pointing out the attitude of society in relation to their own behavior and especially urging against the seduction of adolescents.
- Through the publication, keep the homophile world in touch with the progress of our efforts.
- Through self-discipline, win the confidence and assistance of legal authorities and legislators in understanding the problem: that these authorities should be educated on the futility and folly of long prison terms for those committing homosexual acts.
Only two issues of the paper, both of which Gerber wrote and published probably in the Crilly Court basement, were ever printed. Neither is still in existence. We know about them through a document called Homosexuality: Lesbians and Gay Men in Society, History, and Literature (1975) by James Steakley in which the author shows a German photograph of a collection of 1920s gay periodicals with Friendship and Freedom at the center—the only known image of the newsletter. In Paris Gay 1925 (1981) a book co-authored by two Frenchmen contains a review of Friendship and Freedom, which they describe as a “…moral, American newsletter that wanted to lead the way towards modifying the unjust law that oppresses them.” They noted that the publication contained an article on self-control, a poem by Walt Whitman, and an essay called “Green Carnations”, describing the practice of Oscar Wilde and his friends to wear green carnations in their buttonholes.
If Gerber thought the newsletter would enable him to be the Pied Piper who led homosexuals over the rainbow, he was disappointed. Very few homosexuals were even willing to receive the newsletter, fearing reprisals by postal inspectors. They were right to be afraid. In 1924, Chicago’s postal censors cooperated with local law enforcement agencies to identify and punish as sex deviants anyone who received homosexual literature.
Trouble ‘A Comin’
For one year, Gerber and his tiny group met in the house on Crilly Court and focused on reforming Illinois laws that criminalized homosexuality. They agreed to make SHR a purely homophobic organization, excluding bisexuals. Neither Henry nor John knew that Al was married and had two small children.
In 1925, Gerber decided to leave the anonymity of Old Town for an apartment house at 34 East Oak Street. It was a mistake. At 2:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, July 12, Gerber returned to his apartment from a visit downtown. There was a knock on the door. He opened it, and there stood two men. One was a newspaper reporter. The other identified himself as a city detective who demanded to see “the boy”. Gerber knew there was trouble ahead.
Filed under: Living in Interesting Times