Thursday, May 16, 2013

before stonewall, after 1899 part 1 : Henry Gerber

Have you ever heard of a man named Henry Gerber? Well, if you haven't let me tell you alittle about him. Gerber was a Bavarian American postal worker in 1920's Chicago. He joined the military and was stationed in Germany for awhile where he saw a thriving gay right movement. Yes, there was an active gay rights movement in Germany at that time but I'll get to that later. When he returned to the United States he saw no reason why there shouldn't be an active movement here, too. So, in 1924 he started The Society for Human Rights, the first gay rights organization in the United States. He also started the first known gay publication in the U.S. called Friendship and Freedom. An African-American minister named John T. Graves was president of the organization and Gerber, along with four others sat on the board of directors. The state of Illinois granted the society it's charter which is what made it the first official gay organization.
    Things fell apart almost as quickly as they came together, however. The police arrested several of the society's members and confiscated the two issues of Friendship and freedom that existed. They based they're harassment on the states ''sodomy'' law which out-lawed gay sex and the federal comstock law which out-lawed sending ''lewed'' and sexual material through the mail. The Chicago Examiner ran a story called Strange Sex Cult Exposed.  Gerber was fired from the post office and put on trial three times. In the end he was acquitted but he lost his life savings in legal fees. Sadly, no issues of Friendship and Freedom survive. Ironicly though, Illinois became the first state to repeal it's sodomy law in 1961.
    After the collapse of the society and it's paper a bitter and depressed Gerber moved to New York City for awhile. He later reenlisted in the military and left with an honourable discharge in 1945. He died in 1972 but he lived to see the reemergence of the gay rights movement in the U.S. in the 1950's and 60's.
    I personally see The Society for Human Rights and Friendship and Freedom as the first seeds of the movement in the U.S. The times were too hostile for them to make any social and political headway but the dye was cast, or the stage was set, with them. So, Gerber's work was not in vain.  

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