The various civil rights movements in the United States can trace their birth and growth back to compassionate people of foresight and courage. The African-American community can thank people like W.E.B. DuBois, Martin Luther King, Junior and many others. Early women’s suffrage leaders include such people as Victoria Woodhull, and Susan B. Anthony. The biographies of these individuals and the stories of their struggles are inspirational and moving.
In the struggle for LGBT equality, most Americans cannot think of any of the pioneers. At best, many people do recognize the efforts of Harvey Milk. But the path to Milk’s legacy and today’s successes began much earlier thanks to a handful of very brave pioneers who took immense risks.
Henry Gerber is one name that has been largely overlooked in the history of the LGBT struggle for equal rights. He was the founder of the very first gay rights organization in the U.S.A.
Henry Gerber was born on June 29, 1892 in the German state of Bavaria as Joseph Henry Dittmar. Dittmar and his family immigrated to the United States in the Autumn of 1913. It was at this time that Dittmar changed his name to Henry Gerber. The 21-year-old moved to Chicago because he was attracted by the sizeable German population there. He found a job at Montgomery Ward, but was jailed as an alien during the first World War. Later, he did serve in the U.S. Army from 1920-23. He was assigned with forces occupying postwar Germany.
While Gerber was in Germany, he met members of some German homosexual emancipation groups. Gerber maintained contact with Magnus Hirschfield’s Scientific-Humanitarian Community in Berlin. Gerber returned to Chicago in 1924, he obtained a position in the post office. He was also greeted by an emerging gay subculture in that city.
Gerber was inspired by Hirschfield’s accomplishments. Gerber decided to create a similar organization in the U.S. He named his organization the “Society For Human Rights”, SHR. He named himself secretary then filed his application to register as a non-profit organization in Illinois.
Clergyman John T. Graves was selected as President. Five other individuals were drafted as directors of SHR. The state of Illinois finally granted the charter in December of 1924. The charter officially made SHR the earliest pro-homosexual organization in the United States.
Shortly after the formation of SHR, Gerber began the first Gay advocacy newsletter. “Friendship and Freedom” only lasted for two issues due to the fear that postal inspectors would list the newsletter as obscene under the Comstock Act.
Even though SHR membership was limited to Gay men and excluded bisexuals, vice-president Al Weininger was actually married and had two children. In 1925, Mrs. Weininger reported SHR to a social worker calling the organization a group of “degenerates”.
Henry Gerber was interrogated by Chicago police who then arrested him. He was tried three times with all charges eventually dismissed. Gerber was fired from the post office for “conduct unbecoming of a postal worker”. The costly trials ruined Gerber financially and destroyed the SHR.
Gerber decided to move to New York City for a new start to his life and dreams. He reenlisted in the Army and served honorably for 17-years. During his second enlistment, Gerber started and managed a pen pal service named “Connections”. The majority of the members were heterosexual but the minority homosexual members remained important and loyal supporters.
During the same time, Gerber bravely wrote articles for magazines advocating fair treatment of Gays and other same-sex issues. At the times he used a pseudonym, he went by the name of “Parisex”.
He continued networking among the Gay community in New York into the 1950s and kept up an ambitious correspondence with other concerned Gay men organizing strategies to combat societal prejudice against Gay people. He continued working with other activists into his retirement years. He compiled his memoirs and enjoyed translating German novels.
Henry Gerber died at home at the age of 80 on December 31, 1972. He was posthumously inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 1992. The Henry Gerber House in Chicago where SHR was founded was designated an official Chicago Landmark in June of 2001.
The Blue Jay of Happiness salutes the efforts of the early pioneers of the LGBT civil rights movement.