Many people think that the beginning of the modern gay rights movement began with the Stonewall uprising of 1969 or even with the founding in the 1950s of “homophile” groups like The Mattachine Society or Daughters of Bilitis.
But a recently published book suggests that Henry Gerber, a Chicago post office clerk, actually began laying the groundwork for the gay rights movement in 1925.
The book, An Angel in Sodom: Henry Gerber and the Birth of the Gay Rights Movementnotes that, while serving as a proofreader for a military newspaper in Germany during World War I, Gerber subscribed to several German gay magazines and spent time among the queer community in Berlin, where the US military was not stationed at the time. .
While there, Gerber was inspired by the Institute for Sexual Sciences, a transgender-inclusive research organization led by sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld. The organization issued formal identification cards to trans people to help them avoid criminal charges of cross-dressing, the atlantic indicated.
Gerber watched as the German queer community had come together for visibility and political power. But in the US, queer people were afraid to come together publicly because anti-queer laws and social practices threatened to oust and imprison them, effectively ruining their lives in the process.
Drawing inspiration from Germany’s queer community, Gerber founded the innocuously named Society for Human Rights in Illinois in 1924. The society sought to “gain the confidence and assistance of legal authorities and legislators” to help end legal persecution. and social of homosexuals. Gerber wrote. The group was dedicated exclusively to gay people, actively excluding bisexuals.
Gerber said he reached out to “many prominent people” and “prominent medical authorities” to support his group, “but they generally refused to jeopardize his reputation.” Potential members also avoided her group. Although “millions” of homosexuals lived in the US, Geber found that very few were eager to put their names on his group’s mailing list.
Gerber eventually found three impoverished friends to support his group as its national officers: a preacher who gave sermons on brotherly love to small black groups, a “destitute laundry queen” (who, it later turned out, had a wife and two children), and a railway worker afraid of losing his job because he is gay. In total, about nine people joined the group.
He also published two issues of a publication called Friendship and Freedombut he discovered 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”, much to Gerber’s confusion. He then took Gerber to the police station. The detective confiscated Gerber’s typewriter, notary public diploma, his personal journals, accounting accounts, and partnership documents. The officer did not have a warrant and Gerber never recovered the journals from him.
At the station, Gerber discovered that two of the national officers in his group had been arrested. The arrests had been covered in the local publication. the examiner under the heading “Strange Sex Cult Exposed”. The article claimed that the aforementioned “laundry queen” had committed “bizarre sexual acts” in front of her wife and children, prompting her wife to contact the police. The article also said the man had a pamphlet from the society that encouraged men to “leave their wives and children.” Gerber called this a gross distortion of the facts.
Police had no arrest warrants for any of the three men. As “the only 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”, although Gerber said the line was taken out of context and that he purposely omitted any gay content from his diary that could have been used against him.
The judge in the case also said that he thought society Friendship and Freedom magazine could be considered a violation of federal law that prohibits sending obscene material through the mail. Gerber denied that the magazine contained anything 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 a warrant in the first place.
When Gerber was released from jail, the prosecutor 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 mockingly asked him, “What was the Human Rights Society’s idea anyway? Was it to give the birds the legal right to rape all the street children?
The arrest caused Gerber to lose his job with the postal service for “conduct unbecoming of a postal worker.” Her dismissal meant the end of her society. He referred to the 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.
Although their partnership ended, Gerber continued to support homosexual publications and social groups throughout the 1920s and 1950s, although many of them had to publicly hide their associations with homosexuality in order to avoid legal prosecution.
This persecution continued (and continues to this day), although the Stonewall Uprising and other rebellions marked major turning points in which LGBTQ people refused to tolerate any more police abuse and public shaming. Gerber died on December 31, 1972, at the age of 80, living long enough to see the Stonewall uprising and the beginning of a new era of LGBTQ rights activism.