Henry Gerber was born in Bavaria as Joseph Henry Dittmar on June 29, 1892, and arrived at Ellis Island in October, 1913. With members of his family, he moved to Chicago because of its large German population. After working briefly at Montgomery Ward, he was interned as an alien during World War I. He wrote that although this was not right, he did receive three meals a day. From 1920 to 1923 he served with the U.S. Army of Occupation of Germany and during this time, he came into contact with the German homosexual emancipation movement. He subscribed to German homophile magazines and was in contact with Magnus Hirschfeld's Scientific-Humanitarian Community in Berlin. In 1924, Gerber returned to Chicago and was hired by the post office. Gerber's return to Chicago was amidst a backdrop of urbanization and an emerging gay subculture.
Following what Gerber had seen in Germany, he felt the need to establish an organization to protect the rights of gays and lesbians. With several friends, Gerber formed an organization which was later incorporated as The Society for Human Rights, a nonprofit corporation in the State of Illinois. The organization published a newsletter, Friendship and Freedom, which was distributed to its small membership.
In July, 1925, the society came to an abrupt end. The wife of one of the co-founders reported her husband, a reputed bisexual, to her social worker who contacted the police. Following a police raid, Gerber and several others were arrested and prosecuted for their deviancy. After three costly trials the case against Gerber was dismissed. Gerber lost his entire life savings defending himself and was fired from his job at the post office for conduct unbecoming a postal worker.
After his ordeal, Gerber moved to New York City where he reenlisted in the U.S. Army and served for 17 years. During the 1930s he managed a personal correspondence club and wrote articles in gay publications under a pseudonym. The correspondence club became a national communications network for gay men. In the 1940s, Gerber exchanged a number of letters with Manuel Boyfrank of California. Boyfrank was enthusiastic about organizing to combat homosexual oppression. Gerber offered his assistance, but refused to risk his job again. He continued his assistance through personal correspondence and numerous articles.
On December 31, 1972, Gerber died at the U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Home in Washington, D.C., at the age of 80. He lived to see the Stonewall Rebellion and the start of a new era of activist gay and lesbian liberation organizations.
Burial: US Soldiers' and Airmen's Home National Cemetery, Washington, District of Columbia, District Of Columbia, USA, Plot: Section Q, Plot 833
Even more striking is that a movement for the rights of homosexuals had existed in Germany since the end of the nineteenth century, which at least some gay men, such as the writer Henry Gerber and the composer Charles Tomlinson Griffes, encountered while in Europe before or during the war. Inspired by such European models, Gerber organized a short-lived homosexual-rights group in Chicago in 1924, upon his return from the war (it was promptly suppressed by the police), and although Griffes did not take so dramatic a step, he told his New York friends about the work of the German homosexual emancipationist Magnus Hirschfeld and about how the German movement and Edward Carpenter's books had helped him think more positively about his homosexuality. It is likely that thousands of American gay men were similarly affected by their encounter with a culture in which homosexuals experienced a greater degree of tolerance and had begun to speak and organize on their own behalf, much as thousands of African-American servicemen were politicized by their experience of living in a less racist society while fighting to defend "American democracy". A decade after his return from Europe, and seven years after his fledging Society for Human Rights had been crushed, Henry Gerber denounced American attitudes by contrasting them with those of a supposedly enlightened Europe. Many "homosexuals live in happy, blissful unions, especially in Europe, where homosexuals are unmolested as long as they mind their own business", he insisted in a 1932 essay published in the journal of opinion Modern Thinker, "and are not, as in England and in the United States, driven to the underworld of perversions and crime for satisfaction of their very real craving for love". --Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 by George ChaunceyFurther Readings:
Hidden History of Old Town (IL) by Shirley Baugher
Paperback: 176 pages
Publisher: The History Press (June 7, 2011)
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New York has Greenwich Village; New Orleans has its French Quarter; Paris has Montmartre. And Chicago has its own little piece of charm that rivals them all. Chicago has Old Town--an oasis in the steel and stone heart of the city, an old-fashioned, do-it-yourself neighborhood beloved by artists and entrepreneurs as the perfect place to find a muse and raise a family. And while a casual, inobservant visitor can feel the magnetism of the place, lifelong residents may still be unaware of the hidden bits of history Old Town has drawn into itself. Until now.
Behind the Mask of the Mattachine: The Hal Call Chronicles and the Early Movement for Homosexual Emancipation (Haworth Gay and Lesbian Studies) by James T. Sears
Paperback: 630 pages
Publisher: Routledge (November 1, 2006)
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Take a revealing look at gay sex and gay history—and the man who helped kick-start gay activism in today’s society
The Mattachine is the origin of the contemporary American gay movement. One of the major players in this movement was Hal Call, America’s first openly gay journalist and the man most responsible for the end of government censorship of frontal male nude photography through the mail. Behind the Mask of the Mattachine: The Early Movement for Homosexual Emancipation, the Hal Call Chronicles travels back to the times before Stonewall and its aftermath, to the beginnings of the modern homosexual movement and the lesser-known individuals who started it. This stunning chronicle boldly goes beyond the standard whitewashed/desexualized history usually provided by other gay historians, to give the unexpurgated—and sexually charged—history of the activists who organized homosexuals, using the biography of the controversial Hal Call as its springboard.
Behind the Mask of the Mattachine provides a revealing illustration of gay life and gay sex in the past through an intergenerational history of the early gay men’s movement. Noted author James T. Sears generously weaves oral history, seldom seen historical documents, and rare photographs to provide a rich behind-the-scenes look at the first wave of Mattachine activists and the emerging gay pornography industry. This historical chronicle of a previously neglected era is packed with details of Call’s personal struggles, his celebration of the phallus, and his assertion linking homophobia and heteronormativity to our culture’s sex-negative tradition. The reader is transported to the sexual underworld of youthful hustlers, porno kingpins, spurned lovers, sex clubs, cruising grounds, secretive societies, and personal in-fighting over the direction of gay activism. This enthralling narrative is impeccably referenced.
Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of the City's Gay Community by Tracy Baim
Hardcover: 224 pages
Publisher: Agate Surrey (September 1, 2008)
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Out and Proud in Chicago takes readers through the long and rich history of the city's LGBT community. Lavishly illustrated with color and black-and white-photographs, the book draws on a wealth of scholarly, historical, and journalistic sources. Individual sections cover the early days of the 1800s to World War II, the challenging community-building years from World War II to the 1960s, the era of gay liberation and AIDS from the 1970s to the 1990s, and on to the city's vital, post-liberation present.