My Old House
True confession: I have carried on a love affair with my house at 1710 N. Crilly Court for the past thirty years. I love everything about it: its architecture, its history, its feel of old world elegance combined with contemporary convenience, its location, and, most of all, the feeling of home that it has given me. It has nurtured, protected, and satisfied me in every way. Now, I have one more reason to love it. On Friday, June 26, 2015, Sally Jewel, Secretary of the Interior, along with the National Park Service designated the “Henry Gerber House” at 1710 N. Crilly Court in Chicago’s Old Town Triangle a National Historic Landmark—only the second LBGT-related property to achieve this distinction. The Stonewall Inn in New York is the other one.
Yes, you read that right. The Henry Gerber House, not the Shirley and Norman Baugher House. Why? Because in 1924, when he was renting a room here, Henrt Gerber founded The Society for Human Rights, the first gay civil rights organization in America. The society marked a turning point in the history of the LGBT movement in the United States. Here is his story.
An Unlikely Hero
On the face of it, nothing about Henry Gerber seems heroic, although he was a hero in every sense of the word. He was not handsome, manly, or even likeable. But he was brave. In a time when no one dared even admit to homosexuality for fear of being ostracized and/or imprisoned, Henry Gerber acknowledged his. What’s more, he advocated for the right to follow ones own sexual predisposition, openly and without fear of reprisal. He was a visionary whose vision was more than fifty years premature.
Henry Gerber was not our hero’s real name. He was born Josef Henry Dittmar in Bavaria in 1892. He immigrated to the United States with his parents in 1913. They settled in Chicago because they were comfortable with the large German Catholic population there. Young Josef got a job working for Montgomery Ward Company and changed his name to Henry Gerber. When it got out, as it was bound to do, that he was homosexual, he was briefly committed to a mental institution. He gained his release in 1914 by enlisting in the army.
All was well, for a while. Then, the U. S. entered World War I, and a rumor started that German spies were operating in the U. S. and were a threat to national security. At the time, there were fifty thousand unnaturalized German immigrants living here. The United States opened a number of internment camps and arrested eight thousand of them as “enemy aliens”. Henry Gerber was one of the eight thousand. He was sent to a camp in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia and remained there until the end of the war.
When the war ended, he was able to reenlist in the army. He was assigned to AMAROC News, the daily newspaper of the American forces based in Coblenz, Germany from 1919 to 1923. The publication featured short stories by popular writers, poetry written by the soldiers themselves, and features about sports heroes like Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey. It was as though the stars had aligned for Henry Gerber. He was a good writer. He was fond of literature. And, he could speak German. While the paper was published in English, it was printed on German typesetting machines. When the paper folded in 1923, Gerber stayed behind to help wind up operations.
During this time, Gerber discovered the writings of Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, a world-renowned authority on sexology and the director of the Institute of Sexual Science in Berlin. Hirschfeld had established the Scientific Humanitarian Society which was working to reform German anti-homosexual laws. Henry made many trips to Berlin where he found a thriving gay subculture. This was the Germany depicted in Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories and, later, Kander & Ebb’s popular musical Cabaret. A happy-go-lucky, anything goes Berlin.
Henry Gerber had an “aha” moment. “Why not?” he asked himself. If it could happen in Germany, why not the United States? Why not Chicago? Just as Abraham Lincoln had emancipated the slaves, he, Henry Gerber, would go down in history as the man who freed the homosexuals. No more mental institutions. No more fear of incarceration. No more clandestine meetings. He would create a Society for Human Rights that recognized the rights of all human beings—not just homosexuals. Based on what he had seen in Germany—anything was possible. Or so he thought, until he went back to Chicago and tried to make his dream come true.
Filed under: Living in Interesting Times