amazing tales

You’ve probably never heard of this forefather of the LGBTQ rights movement

Henry Gerber

Many people think the start of the modern rights gay rights movement began with the 1969 Stonewall Uprising or even the 1950s-era founding of “homophile” groups like The Mattachine Society or the Daughters of Bilitis.

But a recently published book suggests that Henry Gerber, a Chicago post-office worker, actually began laying the foundation of the gay rights movement back in 1925.

The book, An Angel in Sodom: Henry Gerber and the Birth of the Gay Rights Movement, notes that, while serving as a military newspaper proofreader in Germany during World War I, Gerber subscribed to several gay German magazines and spent time amongst the queer community in Berlin, where the U.S. military wasn’t stationed at the time.

While there, Gerber was inspired by the Institute of Sexual Science, a transgender-inclusive research organization headed by sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld. The organization issued formal ID cards to trans people to help them avoid criminal cross-dressing charges, The Atlantic noted.

Gerber observed how the German queer community had banded together to achieve visibility and political power. But in the U.S., queer people were afraid to publicly unite because anti-queer laws and social practices threatened to out them and imprison them, effectively ruining their lives in the process.

Inspired by Germany’s queer community, Gerber founded the innocuously named Society for Human Rights in Illinois in 1924. The society sought to “win the confidence and assistance of legal authorities and legislators” to help end the legal and social persecution of homosexuals, Gerber wrote. The group was exclusively dedicated to gay people, actively excluding bisexuals.

Gerber said he contacted “many prominent persons” and “noted medical authorities” to support his group, “but they usually refused to endanger their reputations.” Potential members also avoided his group. Even though “millions” of homosexuals lived in the U.S., Geber found that very few were eager to let their names be on his group’s mailing list.

Gerber eventually found three poor friends to support his group as its national officers: a preacher who gave sermons about brotherly love to small Black groups, an “indigent laundry queen” (who, it later turned out, had a wife and two kids), and a railroad worker afraid of losing his job for being gay. In total, about nine people joined the group.

He also published two issues of a publication called Friendship and Freedom, but he found that his friends were too poor and illiterate to buy it let alone read it.

Gerber’s organization came to an end one night in July 1925 at 2 a.m. when a police detective and a local journalist knocked on his apartment door. The detective asked “where the boy was,” to Gerber’s confusion. He then took Gerber to the police station. The detective confiscated Gerber’s typewriter, notary public diploma, his personal diaries, bookkeeping accounts, and the society’s documents. The officer didn’t have a warrant, and Gerber never got his diaries back.

At the station, Gerber found that two of his group’s national officers had been arrested. The arrests had been covered in the local publication The Examiner under the headline “Strange Sex Cult Exposed.” The article claimed the aforementioned “laundry queen” had committed “strange sex acts” in front of his wife and kids, causing the wife to contact the police. The article also said the man had a pamphlet from the society encouraging men to “leave their wives and children.” Gerber called this a gross distortion of facts.

The police had no warrants for any of the three men’s arrests. As the “the sole evidence of my crime,” Gerber wrote, officers claimed they had found a cosmetic powder puff in his apartment. They also pointed to a passage in one of Gerber’s diaries that proclaimed “I love Karl,” though Gerber said the line was taken out of context and that he purposely left out any gay content from his diary that could’ve been used against him.

The judge in the case also said he thought that the society’s Friendship and Freedom magazine could be considered a violation of federal law forbidding the sending of obscene material through the mail. Gerber denied the magazine contained anything at all that could be considered “obscene.” In the end, a judge dismissed the men’s arrests, calling it an “outrage” that they had been arrested and detained without warrants in the first place.

As Gerber was released from jail, the prosecuting attorney told him that the pastor who served as the society’s national officer had confessed to sleeping with a boy — the boy the detective had asked Gerber about. Upon Gerber’s release, the detective derisively asked him, “What was the idea of the Society for Human Rights anyway? Was it to give you birds the legal right to rape every boy on the street?”

The arrest caused Gerber to lose his postal service job for “conduct unbecoming a postal worker.” His dismissal led to the end of his society. He referred to anti-gay arrests of the time as an “Unholy Inquisition” and compared the resulting trials to the public trials of queer Irish playwright Oscar Wilde.

Though his society ended, Gerber continued to support gay publications and social groups throughout the 1920s to the 1950s, though many of them had to publicly hide their associations to homosexuality, lest they be subject to legal persecution.

This persecution continued (and continues to this day), though the Stonewall Uprising and other rebellions marked important turning points where LGBTQ people refused to tolerate police abuse and public shaming any further. Gerber died on December 31, 1972, at the age of 80, living long enough to see the Stonewall Uprising and the start of a new era of LGBTQ rights activism.

Don't forget to share: