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The Chicagoan Who Founded the Earliest Gay Rights Group in America

Meredith Francis
Henry Gerber
Henry Gerber was arrested in his Old Town home in 1925 for founding the Society for Human Rights, the nation's first gay rights organization.

It was in Germany in the 1920s that Henry Gerber first learned of an organized movement for gay rights. That movement would inspire Gerber to launch his own group, which, though short-lived, was an early catalyst for the effort in the decades to come.

Gerber, born Henry Dittmar in Bavaria in 1892, was an immigrant living in Chicago in the early 1900s. Though historical records aren’t clear, Gerber enlisted in the army at some point during World War I and may even have been detained as an “enemy alien”—a native of a foreign country with which the United States was at war. After the war, Gerber re-enlisted and served in Ally-occupied Germany from 1920 to 1923.

In Germany, particularly in Berlin, Gerber experienced the gay subculture and learned about Magnus Hirschfeld’s Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, the first gay rights organization. Hirschfeld, a physician, founded the group in order to secure rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals and reform German anti-gay laws.

Gerber wanted to bring what he learned in Germany back to the United States. While working for the post office in Chicago, Gerber and a small group of his friends filed papers to form a nonprofit corporation called the Society for Human Rights (SHR).

On December 10, 1924, the state of Illinois approved the formation of the group. In a letter Gerber wrote decades later, he said no one from the state “seemed to have bothered to investigate our purpose.”

SHR’s charter stated that its goal was to protect the interests of people who “are abused and hindered in the legal pursuit of happiness, and to combat the public prejudices against them by dissemination of facts according to modern science among intellectuals of mature age.”

SHR’s beginnings were modest, in part because, as Gerber acknowledged, it was difficult to get gay men to leave the shadows. As long as homosexuality was illegal, gay men, he wrote, “should not let their names be on any homosexual organization’s mailing list any more than notorious bandits would join a thieves’ union.” At that time, Gerber’s own employer, the U.S. Post Office, policed the mail to prevent the distribution of “obscene materials,” per the Comstock laws of the late 19th century.

Gerber, being the only literate one among his friends, served as SHR’s secretary and published two issues of Friendship and Freedom, a small magazine that, in Gerber’s words, “was to refrain from advocating sexual acts and would serve merely as a forum for discussion.” The goal was to get enough men to join the group and to eventually persuade medical authorities to endorse them.

But the group didn’t last long. The wife of SHR’s vice president discovered the magazine and reported it during the summer of 1925. A police officer and a reporter from the Examiner showed up at Gerber’s home, and he was arrested without a warrant. The other men, he would soon learn, had also been arrested. The reporter’s story was headlined, “Strange Sex Cult Exposed.”

Though the charges were dismissed, Gerber had spent most of his money on legal fees and was fired from his job as a postal worker. The society was disbanded. He left Chicago for New York City and continued writing anonymous essays under various pseudonyms in the decades that followed.

In 1962, ONE, a monthly gay magazine, published a detailed letter with Gerber’s name attached. In describing the small group that founded SHR, Gerber wrote, “I realized this start was dead wrong, but after all, movements always start small …. It would probably take long years to develop into anything worth while. Yet I was will[ing] to slave and suffer and risk losing my job and savings and even my liberty for the ideal.”

Despite being decades ahead of its time, the Society for Human Rights inspired future gay rights organizations. The Mattachine Society, founded in 1950, was one such organization that carried on the advocacy for equality into the 1960s and beyond.

Gerber’s home at 1710 North Crilly Court—the one that was raided in 1925—was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2015.

Learn about more of Chicago's LGBT history in our documentary Out & Proud in Chicago, narrated by Jane Lynch.