Gregory Sprague Collection
Chicago Historical Society

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Henry Gerber

In 1923, a 31-year-old soldier named Henry Gerber finished his tour of duty with the Army, having spent three years in occupied Germany in the wake of World War I. In Germany, Gerber had witnessed the rise of a large, organized movement to secure civil rights for homosexuals. The successes of that growing movement gave Gerber a new sense of possibility, and he returned home to Chicago determined to begin a parallel effort in America.

However, few others were willing to take the risks that such activism entailed. Even though gay communities were growing in Chicago and other cities during the 1910s and '20s, official repression could still come down swiftly and heavily when authorities chose to act. It took Gerber a year to find six men to join him in his project. Finally, in December, 1924, Gerber and his allies founded the Society for Human Rights, America's first-known gay rights organization.

Gerber began publishing a newsletter called Friendship and Freedom in order to spread the word about the work of the Society. Shortly thereafter, the police raided Gerber's home, arresting him and confiscating all of his papers. Gerber and the other members of the Society were jailed for three days, though no charges were filed against them.

As a result of his arrest Gerber lost his job, and the Society disbanded. Gerber, however, continued his efforts on behalf of homosexuals, writing letters to the editor under the pen name "Parisex." In 1932, an essay by "Parisex" entitled "In Defense of Homosexuality" ran in a periodical called The Modern Thinker.

Despite his pioneering work, however, succeeding generations of gay and lesbian activists knew little of Gerber. The police raid of 1925 effectively erased him and the Society for Human Rights from the public record. All of Gerber's papers were destroyed, and the only surviving photograph of the activist is in the holdings of the Henry Gerber Library in Chicago. In 1952, when a new, "homophile" organization called the Mattachine Society began publishing One -- the first national gay and lesbian publication -- Gerber wrote to inform them of his earlier activities. Finally, in 1963, a full account of his work appeared in the magazine.

Gerber was at the vanguard of a growing awareness among gays and lesbians that their problems stemmed not from their sexual natures but from oppression. And it was this very oppression that prevented later generations of gay activists from learning of and drawing inspiration from Gerber's work.

Source: Katz