The Society for Human Rights was founded in 1924 by German-born Henry Gerber (1892-1972). His given name was Josef Henry Dittmar. While living in Chicago, he founded the first American LGBTQ Rights organization.
Inspired by the work of Germany’s pioneering Gay Rights activist Magnus Hirschfeld, Gerber founded the Society for Human Rights (SHR) and Friendship & Freedom, the first American gay publication.
In 1917, Gerber was committed to a mental institution because of his queerness. When the USA 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. He served for three years, 1920 to 1923.
During his time in Germany, Gerber learned about Hirschfeld and the work he was doing to reform anti-homosexual German law, especially the notorious Paragraph 175, which criminalized sex between men. Gerber traveled to Berlin, which had a thriving gay culture. There, he resolved to start a Gay Rights organization in America.
Following his military service, Gerber went to work for the post office in Chicago. Gerber filed an application for a charter as a non-profit organization with the state of Illinois. The application outlined the goals and purposes of the SHR:
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.
An African-American clergyman, John T. Graves, was named president of the new organization and Gerber, Graves and five others became the directors. The state granted the charter on December 10, 1924, making SHR the oldest documented LGBTQ organization in the nation.
Gerber created Friendship & Freedom, as the SHR newsletter. However, few SHR members were willing to receive the newsletter in the mail, fearing that postal inspectors would deem the publication obscene. Indeed, all gay-interest publications were considered obscene until 1958. Friendship & Freedom lasted two issues.
Gerber and Graves decided to limit SHR membership to gay men and exclude bisexuals and women. Unknown to them, SHR vice-president Al Weininger was married with two children. Weninger’s wife reported SHR to a social worker in the summer of 1925, calling them “degenerates”. The police interrogated Gerber and arrested him. The Chicago Examiner reported the story using the headline Strange Sex Cult Exposed.
Charges against Gerber were eventually dismissed but his defense cost him his life savings, most of which had been used as bribes paid through his lawyer. Gerber lost his post office job for “conduct unbecoming a postal worker”. SHR was destroyed and Gerber was left embittered that none of the wealthy A-list gays in Chicago came to his rescue.
Within a year of its creation, the Society for Human Rights was finished. Gerber moved to New York City and re-enlisted in the Army, and was posted at Fort Jay on Governors Island, where he continued to write essays on homosexuality for several publications. While there, he was subject to harassment, including beatings and blackmail, because he was gay. He spent several weeks held in the brig even though no evidence of illegal behavior was found.
Gerber was honorably discharged in 1945, and he continued the fight for Gay Rights for the rest of his life. During his era, gay writers used pseudonyms when writing on gay subjects for fear of arrest; Gerber sometimes wrote under an alias, but just as often he used his own name.
In the 1950s, Gerber began exploring the New York City gay scene and he had correspondence with other gay men, discussing Gay Rights organizing and strategies. Gerber lived in NYC until near the end of his life, when he moved into the Soldiers’ Home in Washington DC. Gerber was 80-years-old when he died at the home on New Year’s Eve 1972. He is buried in the adjoining United States Soldier’ Home Cemetery.
The Henry Gerber House in Chicago, contains the apartment in which Gerber lived when he founded SHR. It was designated a Chicago Landmark on June 1, 2001 and in June 2015 it was named a National Historic Landmark.