100 Heroes: Henry Gerber
The gay man who established the first gay rights organisation in the US.
Henry Gerber was an early homosexual rights activist in the United States.
Inspired by the work of Germany’s Magnus Hirschfeld and his Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, Gerber founded the Society for Human Rights in 1924 – the nation’s first known homosexual organisation. Gerber also established Friendship and Freedom – the first known American homosexual publication.
Gerber was born in 1892 in Bavaria.
His family emigrated to the United States in 1913, settling in Chicago.
In 1917, Gerber was briefly committed to a mental institution because of his homosexuality.
When the United States declared war on Germany, Gerber was given a choice – be interned as an enemy alien or enlist in the Army. Gerber chose the Army and he was assigned to work as a printer and proofreader with the Allied Army of Occupation in Coblenz. He served for around three years.
During his time in Germany, Gerber learned about Magnus Hirschfeld and the work he and his Scientific-Humanitarian Committee were doing to reform anti-homosexual German law. Gerber traveled to Berlin, which supported a thriving gay subculture. Following his military service, Gerber returned to the United States and went to work for the post office in Chicago.
Society for Human Rights
Inspired by Hirschfeld’s work with the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, Gerber resolved to found a similar organisation in the United States. He called his group the Society for Human Rights and took on the role of secretary.
Gerber filed an application for a charter as a non-profit organisation with the state of Illinois. The application outlined the goals and purposes of the organisation as being:
“To promote and protect the interests of people who by reasons of mental and physical abnormalities are abused and hindered in the 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 in violation of present laws nor advocate any manner inimical to the public welfare.”
The organisation’s charter was approved by the state of Illinois in 1924, making the Society for Human Rights the oldest documented homosexual organisation in the US.
Gerber created the first known American gay-interest publication, called Friendship and Freedom, as the SHR newsletter. However, few SHR members were willing to receive mailings of the newsletter, fearing that postal inspectors would deem the publication obscene under the Comstock Act. Indeed, all gay-interest publications were deemed obscene until 1958. Friendship and Freedom only published two issues.
Gerber was arrested in 1925. Charges against him were eventually dismissed but the scandal cost him his job.
In 1927, Gerber re-enlisted in the Army.
During his second enlistment, Gerber ran a pen pal service called “Connections” – this began in in 1930. The service typically had between 150 and 200 members.
During the emergence of the homophile movement in the U.S., Gerber maintained correspondence with other gay men, discussing gay organising and strategies for answering societal prejudice. Gerber was an early member of the Washington chapter of the Mattachine Society.
Gerber spent the last decades of his life as a resident of the Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home.
Gerber was 80 years old when he died at the home in 1972.