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June 29, 2024 25 mins

This 2015 episode on Henry Gerber covers his founding of the Society for Human Rights  in Chicago in the 1920s with the intent to decriminalize homosexuality. Gerber was inspired by Germany's homosexual emancipation movement.

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Speaker 1 (00:02):
Happy Saturday. Henry Gerber was born on June twenty ninth,
eighteen ninety two, or one hundred thirty two years ago
today if you're listening on the day this episode publishes.
Gerber established Chicago Society for Human Rights one hundred years
ago in nineteen twenty four, and it was the first
known organization for gay rights in the United States.

Speaker 2 (00:24):
We mentioned in this episode that it followed one on
Compton's Cafeteria riot. That riot happened a little less than
three years before the more well known Stonewall Riot. There
are also a couple of mentions in this episode of
Magnus Hirschfeld in his Institute for Sexual Science. When we
recorded this episode, we did not have an episode on

him that came out afterward on September nineteenth, twenty eighteen,
and us a little bit of an.

Speaker 1 (00:51):
Update to the very end of this episode. In June
of twenty fifteen, Henry Gerber's house was indeed designated a
National Historic Landmark. Of this episode on Henry Gerber and
Chicago Society where Human Rights came out on June twenty second,
twenty fifteen. Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class,

A production of iHeartRadio. Hello, and welcome to the podcast.

Speaker 2 (01:20):
I'm Holly Frye and I'm Tracy V.

Speaker 1 (01:23):
Wilson. And we recently talked about the Compton's Cafeteria riots,
and this is kind of a little bit of a
dovetail on that, but we're time traveling backwards. We talked
about in that episode, how you know a lot of
people point to the Stonewall Riots as the beginning of
the LGBT rights movement in the US, but of course

there were things going on before that, as that episode
on the Cafeteria Riot pointed out, and even before that,
and there were certainly gay people here long before that,
and there were, in fact LGBT rights organizations trying to
pop up, probably my earlier than you, suspect. And today
we're going to talk about the man who started, ever
so briefly, the first such organization in the US, at

least the first that we know of, and that took
place more than four decades before Stonewall. So just a
heads up on this one, particularly if you're listening with
younger listeners. We are going to talk a little bit
about some legal issues that came up involving specific sex acts,
So just keep that in mind as you listen to
this one, maybe preview it if you think your younger

listeners might not be ready for that. But right out
of the gate, I feel like we have to mention
that today's subject, who is Henry Gerber, can be a
little bit of a difficult character in LGBT history. While
he definitely wanted to push back against anti gay legislation,
he was not so open to bisexuals. He was not
particularly accepting of lesbians or basically any of the people

we would put under the LGBT umbrella today that we're
not gay men. He was an introvert, He was very
serious man. Some people describe him as curmudgeonly or cantankerous,
not really a charmer, and he would often look down
his nose even at other gay men, saying that they

were too frivolous and that they were not forward thinking
enough about the place of the gay man in society.
But at the same time, he really spearheaded this important,
though often overlooked effort to improve the rights of gay
citizens and secure some sort of safety for them. So

we're talking about Henry Gerbert today, keep in mind he's
a little bit tricky in some ways. He was born
as of Henry Ditmar. On June twenty ninth of eighteen
ninety two, he and his family left their home in
Bavaria to set out for the United States, and they
arrived at Ellis Island in nineteen thirteen. At that point,
Henry was twenty one, and once they had been processed

by immigration officials, the family moved to Chicago, where they
were hoping to join the significant German population there. Henry
got a job pretty quickly working at Montgomery Ward in
the mail order department.

Speaker 2 (04:07):
As is probably obvious at this point, Gerber was gay,
and a lot of the articles about him indicate that
being homosexual got him institutionalized briefly, although the accounts aren't
entirely clear about exactly when this happened.

Speaker 1 (04:23):
Yeah, he's one that we mentioned this a lot in
in some of our episodes, that there are some portions
of history and usually it's the further back you go
that it becomes the harder to actually find substantiated information.
And he's very tricky in this regard. Outside of military records,

a lot of what we have is kind of word
of mouth and his retelling and some other retellings that
have happened along the way, so some of the details
get a little mushy meshy. But what we do know
is that Henry enlisted in the US Army on January
twenty sixth of nineteen fourteen, and it's believed that just
after this is when he changed his name from Joseph

Henry Ditmar to Henry Gerber, although this is another part
where there's some haziness around the historical record and when
he stopped using his birth name and switched to Gerber.
Ditmar actually still appears on a nineteen seventeen draft card,
although at that point Henry claimed exemption on that card
as a conscientious objector, and it's possible that he purposely

shifted the name back to his original Bavarian name in
an effort to create some paperwork confusion over his status.
That's purely speculation. I don't know based on what I've seen,
and I haven't seen the actual card, if that was
a pre printed card or if it's something he wrote in.
But eventually, we do know that his military records cross
referenced both names, both Dittmar and Gerber. During the early

part of World War One, he was labeled as an
enemy alien, and he was taken to an internment camp.
Really sensationalist stories in the press, gossip circles about German
spies in the United States caused a lot of German
immigrants to be looked upon with suspicion, and he was
no exception. After the war was over, Gerber re enlisted

at the end of nineteen nineteen and he worked for
the military as a printer and a proofreader, and he
was shipped to Coblin's Germany as part of the US
Army of Occupation in nineteen twenty and there he worked
on the Amarok News, which is a daily paper that
was published to keep American soldiers that were stationed abroad,
particularly in Germany, informed and entertained, and it published everything

from poems and short stories to the latest sports scores.
While he was in Germany serving as a United States soldier,
Gerber was exposed to that country's homosexual emancipation movement and
as also to the Scientific Humanitarian Committee that was a
critical part of that movement. And I'll give a little
background on the German homosexual emancipation movements, and we're also

going to talk a little bit about Magnus Hirschfield who
was also mentioned and in the Compton's Cafeteria episode. So
the criminal code in Germany was amended in eighteen seventy
one with the inclusion of what is called paragraph one
seventy five, and that piece of legislation made it illegal
for men to engage in sexual acts with one another.

Twenty six years after paragraph one seventy five was adopted
into law, the Scientific Humanitarian Community was founded in Berlin
by Magnus Hirschfeld. One of the huge achievements of Hirschfield's
life was the deconstruction of homosexuality from a biological perspective,
sort of moving it away from being defined as a
pathology and with a scientific approach to the issue of homosexuality,

the Scientific Humanitarian Committee was making some progress towards LGBT rights,
and they were making that progress right up until Hitler's
rise and the Nazi Party's persecution of any perceived sexual devians.

Speaker 2 (07:55):
Yeah, the Nazi Party actually burned down Magnus Hirschfeld's in
Institute for Research into Sexuality. That's sort of been alluded
to in a couple of episodes that we have talked
about that have been on this subject, and we've never
gone into a lot of detail, but yeah, the Nazi
Party destroyed his facility and all the research that was

in it. And we're just giving you kind of the
brief and quick on that to kind of contextualize what
happens next when Gerber returned to the US. We're going
to talk about that influence after his time in Germany
and his exposure to the homosexual emancipation movement, But first
we are going to have a quick word from a sponsor.

By the time Gerber returned to the US, he was
well acquainted with the homosexual emancipation movement. He had spent
his time in Germany reading magazines and other literature about
the movement and also getting to know its leaders. He
would kind of travel around Germany and go to lectures
and really immerge himself in this whole ideology to learn
about it. And he thought, if Germany could have this

growing and thriving for the time homosexual culture that was
willing to speak out for rights, why couldn't we have
that in the US. So one of the things about
the United States was that there was just a lack
of uniformity in legislation across the country regarding sex. It
had created a really tangled mess, and that was facing
anyone who wanted to work toward the cause of rights.

Being labeled as immoral in his home country for being
homosexual just really seemed to be an incredible injustice to
gerber Yeah, and I have to wonder about sort of
the duality of it in terms of his home country.
I put that word in the notes, and he considered
the US his home country, even though he had come
from Bavaria. And so it's kind of interesting that he

then went back to Germany and saw them kind of
working towards this progressive idea of rights, and then he
went to his chosen home where he just did not
have of that same kind of social movement going on.
So it's kind of fascinating from that perspective. And when
he returned to Chicago in nineteen twenty three after his
three years in Germany, he started working as an employee

at the US Postal Service, and he saw that Chicago
had this growing gay subculture, which was secret in most
areas of the city but fairly open in the bohemian
neighborhood of Tower Town, which is in the near North
Side area. And as he saw the gay and lesbian
community growing, he wanted to create a way to protect
these people's rights. Inspired by what he had seen in Germany,

he launched his own plan to create an organization that
would mimic the ones that were involved in Germany's emancipation movement.
He knew that he could not do it alone, but
it was really difficult to find other people who were
willing to take the risks that were inherent in participating
in this kind of mission. He tried to network with
other activists, including birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, but he

never managed to George and the alliances. His efforts to
reach out to the gay men he knew of and
business in Chicago were met pretty coldly at best. Prominent
business people were just not willing to risk their jobs
and families to fight for what they thought was definitely
a losing cause.

Speaker 1 (11:18):
Yees, if it's not completely clear. At this point, pretty
much all these people were closeted outside of Tower Town
like nobody knew that any of these people were gay,
and after a year of searching for allies, Gerber and
six other men that he had managed to round up
founded Chicago's Society for Human Rights in nineteen twenty four,

applying for a charter to incorporate the group on December
tenth of that year, and it was the first gay
rights organization in the United States.

Speaker 2 (11:48):
The Society of Human Rights published a newsletter called Friendship
and Freedom, which circulated to all of its members. Was
a pretty small group, and not many people wanted literature
that my out them to show up in their mailboxes.
Postal inspectors cooperated with law enforcement and would report suspicious materials.
At this point, pretty much all of this would have

been considered obscene.

Speaker 1 (12:13):
Yes, all pretty much illegal. Nonetheless, Gerbert continued his work,
and the mission of the Society was to educate the
heterosexual community about homosexuality and to reform the laws that
made homosexuality criminal. But they had to be very very
careful about this.

Speaker 2 (12:30):
The charter for the group relayed this purpose this way
quote to promote and protect the interests of people who,
by reasons of mental and physical abnormalities, are abused and
hindered in a 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 and violation of present laws, nor advocate in any
manner inimical to public welfare. You probably noticed that there
is no mention there of homosexuality or gay rights. Remember,

this was still a time when it was absolutely illegal
to be gay, thanks to sodomy laws in Illinois. There
were precedent cases that established oral sex as sodomy under
the letter of the law, including one which judicially categorized
fallatio as a crime against nature. This was not a
time that it would have been safe for an organization
intended to decriminalize homosexuality to be out and proud about it.

They had to be very, very careful and kind of
work in incremental, very slow steps. Unfortunately, their work did
not last very long at all. Just eight months after
it was founded, and with only two issues of Friendship
and Freedom having been published, everything came to a crashing halt.
In July nineteen twenty five, the wife of one of
the co founders reported her husband to a social worker.

After the couple's daughter said she had seen her father
and other men performing seances and other strange behavior. The
social worker she spoke with contacted police, and soon thereafter
the Society for Human Rights, which was headquartered in Gerber's home,
was rated. Gerber was arrested for deviant behavior. His typewriter,

his diaries, and other papers were seized, and at this
point in time, Illinois sodomy law stipulated a minimum one
year prison term for anyone found guilty, with the maximum
sentence of ten years, so this was quite a serious situation.
Gerber always insisted that the story of his colleagues's behavior,
as reported by his wife and related in the papers,

was fabricated, but because the accused husband, al Menager, was
confessed to being bisexual during police screening, no one cared
that the facts of the news weren't entirely accurate. Yeah,
and this also came as a surprise to Gerber. He
he had not even known, according to what I read
that the members of his group, that any of them

were married. So when this turned up and there was
a wife that had reported one of them, remember, he
wasn't really that keen on bisexuals, so This was a
really kind of weird and awkward situation in addition to
being dangerous and kind of a powder keg. Gerber was
held by the police for several days. He was allowed
a phone call the morning after his arrest, which he

used to call work and explain his absence, and his
supervisor kind of tried to help him out. He wrote
up the situation as absent on leave in an effort
to cover for Gerber. Henry endured three trials with his colleagues.
The only evidence against him that was supposed to prove
that he was homosexual was a powder puff that was
allegedly found in his room.

Speaker 1 (15:47):
Ee. Yeah, that's widely believed to have been planted. Remember,
he was not, by any accounts I have read, a
cross dresser. He wasn't. He didn't dabble in any sort
of alternate gender expression. So this powder puffs, it's very jarring.
In the record, it seems very weird and out of place. However,

the charges against him were eventually dropped, and that happened
when a judge realized this was during the third trial
that Gerber had been arrested without a warrant, but unfortunately,
he had spent his entire savings up to this point,
particularly on this third trial, hiring an attorney so that
he could try to sort of save himself from this mess.

Speaker 2 (16:32):
The raid and the trials had been reported by the news,
with the Chicago Examiner running a story about it under
the headline strange sex cult exposed, So even though he
had been released and the charges were dropped, he was
still fired from his postal job in the wake of
the incident for a quote conduct unbecoming a postal worker. Additionally,

all records of the Society for Human Rights and their
Friendship and Freedom Newsletter that had been seized in the
red were destroyed, and for decades this important aspect of
LGBT history was basically erased. There are no surviving copies
of the Friendship and Freedom newsletter. A review of it
was reprinted in the book Paris Gay nineteen twenty five,

which came out in nineteen eighty one. The review describes
the newsletter as moral and says that it included a
poem by Walt Whitman and an essay about Oscar Wilde's
practice of wearing a green carnation in his lapel. It's
long been rumored, but not ever confirmed that Wild in
his social circle would wear green carnations as a secret

symbol of homosexuality. Yeah, so that's how that essay would
have appeared in the newsletter. And in just a moment,
we're going to talk about Henry's life after the raid
and subsequent trials and how that put an end to
the Society for Human Rights. But first we're gonna take
a brief word from a sponsor. After all of these

things that we've talked about, Henry Gerber was in need
of a fresh start, and he chose to move to
New York City. In nineteen twenty seven, he re enlisted
with the US Army and then he would serve for
seventeen years. He's also said to have been frustrated at
this point with the lack of activism within what he
called the Dorian crowd. He was also really exasperated at

his perception that other gay men were too willing to
accept the commonly held belief that homosexuality was a mental illness,
and people were seemingly willing to accept a life of
clandestine meetings in a state of fearfulness. Yeah, so he
basically kind of kept on the downlow after this, but
he did continue to write, so throughout the thirties, Gerber

wrote articles for gay magazines. He used a pen name,
and he also managed a correspondence club which was called Contacts,
which would eventually become a communications network for gay men
in the US. And he also wrote an essay called
in Defense of Homosexuals which was published in The Modern Thinker,
and he wrote that under the pseudonym Parasex. In nineteen

thirty four, he even wrote an anti Hitler paper openly
criticizing Hitler's treatment of homosexuals.

Speaker 1 (19:13):
Yeah, which was kind of bold and a little bit dangerous,
even written under a pen name. Then a few years
down the road, there was a man named Manuel Boyfrank
and he was a gay activist in California, and he
reached out to Henry Gerber in the nineteen forties. He
was hoping to get some assistance in creating a new
movement to fight the oppression of homosexuals. And while Gerber

was glad to help out through his writing, he did
not want to attach his real name to the effort
and take a real pivotal role. He just did not
want to risk losing everything again. Throughout his military career,
he dealt with harassment. He was blackmailed and beaten. His
quarters at Governor's Island were searched by Army investigators in
February nineteen forty two. They found no illegal materials or

evidence of illegal behavior, but just the same he was
held in the guard house for several weeks after the search.
He was honorably discharged in nineteen forty five. In nineteen
fifty a new gay rights organization formed called the Mattachine Society.
We referenced that in the earlier episode about the Compton's
Cafeteria riot. And in nineteen fifty two this group began

publishing the first gay and lesbian national newsletter, which was
called One. And when Gerber found out about One, he
actually wrote to the magazine with an account of his
efforts to start the Society for Human Rights and his
attempts to get a previous newsletter out called Friendship and Freedom.
In nineteen fifty eight, One was part of a First

Amendment case heard by the US Supreme Court. This case
was incredibly important because it eventually led to the ruling
that publishing homosexual content did not mean a publication was
inherently obscene. Yeah, prior to that, if you even said,
or you know, suggested that two men might care for
one another romantically. It was pretty much obscenity, whereas this

drew that boundary of like, no, that's not automatically obscene,
you guys. Years later, in nineteen sixty three one the
magazine actually ran a full story about Gerber's efforts and
the work that he was doing in the nineteen twenties,
and it kind of reintroduced his part in the LGBT
rights movement to inter Record.

Speaker 2 (21:30):
In his retirement years, Henry Gerber moved to the US
Soldiers and Airman's Home in Washington, d C. He died
there on December thirty first, nineteen seventy two, from pneumonia.
He was eighty years old. In nineteen ninety two, posthumously,
of course, Henry was inducted into the Chicago Gay and
Lesbian Hall of Fame, and in February of twenty fifteen,

the house at seventeen ten North Carearley Court in Chicago,
which is where Gerber lived when he founded the Society
for Human Rights, was nominated as a National Historic Landmark.
The National Historic Landmarks Committee unanimously approved the nomination. The
next step in the process was for it to go
to the National Park Service Advisory Board in May twenty fifteen.
We have not yet been able to find any information

about how that went since that we are recording this
literally immediately after the conclusion of May twenty fifteen, that
they have not published their notes yet. Today it's June second,
I think that we're recording. So if it's approved by
the Advisory Board, the nomination would then move to the
Secretary of the Interior for final approval.

Speaker 1 (22:37):
So yeah, his home may become a National Historic Landmark.
It looks like it's on track for that to happen,
but you never know what will happen in the process,
so that's something to look forward to. We may have
an update soon, which would be exciting. So yeah, that's
the story of Henry Gerber. He is a tricky He's
one of those people that he comes up for a
long time. He was written about in sort of like

here's the the LGBT rights activists you have never heard of.
But even so, as we mentioned in the episode, there
are some blank spots in there that are not always
entirely clear. And because he's maybe not the most sort
of charming character, I think he gets overlooked anyway.

Speaker 2 (23:19):
Yeah, well, and.

Speaker 1 (23:20):
Some of his.

Speaker 2 (23:22):
Prejudices like continue to exist today, Like there is still
a lot of anti bisexual sentiment and like a yes,
a general trend of kind of assuming anyone who has
a relationship with a person of the same sex is
gay or lesbian and that bisexuality is not a thing.
Like there's a lot of those ideas continue to crop

up today, years and years later after his death. So
it's that's not a I didn't go away, right, Yeah.
I mean, you know, within any community, there is always fracturing,
and he was, you know, kind of one of the
first people that that exemplifies some of that going on,
and it's easy to go, oh, well, that's how it
was in the twenties, which again I always just feel

like we have to pause and go this was something
he was working on in the nineteen twenties, so much
earlier than we really think about this movement. But a
lot of those issues still echo today. So it's kind
of an interesting touchstone and we can kind of see
the mirror of that continuing. Thanks so much for joining

us on this Saturday. Since this episode is out of
the archive, if you heard an email address or a
Facebook RL or something similar over the course of the
show that could be obsolete now.

Speaker 1 (24:41):
Our current email address.

Speaker 2 (24:42):
Is History podcast at iHeartRadio dot com. You can find
us all over social media at missed in History, and
you can subscribe to our show on Apple podcasts, Google podcasts,
the iHeartRadio app, and wherever else you listen to podcasts.
Stuff you missed in History Class is a production of iHeartRadio.

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