Thursday, August 7, 2008

Gay Lib Comes to America

The unremarkable looking man in the photo above is a postal clerk in Chicago named Henry Gerber. On Christmas Eve in 1924, together with 3 friends, he started The Society for Human Rights, the first gay political organization in the United States. Gerber and The Society published a magazine, Friendship and Freedom, the first gay magazine in America.
Gerber was an immigrant from Germany who arrived in 1914. He was very familiar with Hirschfeld's WhK, and wanted to start a similar organization here. Anticipating an issue that would divide the American gay rights movements in the 1950s and early 1960s, Gerber accepted the dominant idea that homosexuality was pathological, but he insisted that it should not be criminalized.
Gerber did not reckon with the lack of political consciousness among Chicago's gay community, or the ruthlessness of the Chicago police. Within months, the operation was closed down by Chicago's Finest. The wife of one of the founders got wind of it and called the cops. Gerber and his friends were arrested for peddling obscenity. They were tried, and 2 of them were convicted and sent to Joliet. Gerber was not convicted. However, he lost his job at the Post Office, and lived in poverty for the rest of his life.
The experience left Gerber a very bitter man. He believed himself to be a fallen soldier in the gay cause, and never forgave Chicago's gay community for ignoring him, especially in his time of need. He later wrote bitterly critical articles for the magazine of the Matachine Society in the 1950s. He was still a bitter man at his death in 1971.

Gay life in the Jazz Age is now well documented. There was a huge flourishing of gay culture in urban America in the 1920s that spilled over into popular culture with the "Pansy Craze." The role of gay men and lesbians in the Harlem Renaissance is now well known. The ferment in lesbian culture following the publication and controversy over Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness is also very famous.
But this first sputtering glimmer of gay political consciousness in America created by a deeply flawed man remains little known.
It would take a huge disruption in American life like the Second World War to create expectations and awaken a political consciousness in American gays and lesbians.

Gerber's tenement apartment in Chicago still stands. It is now a historical site, and the first home of the Henry Gerber Library.

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