Henry Gerber: The gay rights pioneer you probably never heard of

Henry Gerber

Henry Gerber

Last week — Thursday, Feb. 12, to be exact — the National Historic Landmarks Committee, chaired by Dr. Stephen Pitti of Yale University, unanimously approved the nomination of the Henry Gerber House, located at 1710 North Crilly Court in Chicago, to move forward as a National Historic Landmark.

The nomination advances now to the National Park System Advisory Board in May and then to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell for final approval.

But here’s my question: Do you know who Henry Gerber is and while LGBT people should care about his house possibly becoming a National Historic Landmark? No? I didn’t either, I am embarrassed to admit. So I looked it up.

Henry Gerber

Henry Gerber was born June 29, 1892, as Henry Joseph (maybe Josef?) Dittmar in Bavaria. He changed his name to Henry Gerber when he emigrated to the U.S. in 1913, when he was 21. He and other members of his family located in Chicago because of the huge German immigrant community there.

Early in 1917, Gerber was committed for a short time to a mental institution because he was gay. But after the U.S. declared war on Germany on April 2, 1917 and entered World War I, Gerber — like other German immigrants — was given the choice of being declared an enemy alien and locked up (you know, like what happened to a lot of Japanese-Americans in World Word II), or enlisting in the Army. Surprise, surprise, Gerber chose to enlist in the Army.

Gerber was assigned to work as a printer/proofreader with the Allied occupation forces in Coblenz, and spent about three years serving in the military.

During that time in Germany, Gerber learned about Magnus Hirschfield and his Scientifc-Humanitarian Committee, and their efforts to repeal Germany’s Paragraph 175, the law that criminalized sex between men, and which was responsible for keeping many gay men imprisoned following World War II, even after other prisoners in the Nazi concentration camps were freed. Gerber also spent some time in Berlin while he was stationed in Germany, at a time when Berlin had a thriving gay subculture.

When he got out of the Army, Gerber returned to Chicago and went to work for the U.S. Post Office there. But he didn’t forget what he had seen and learned in Germany, and in 1924 Gerber founded the Society for Human Rights, the oldest documented LGBT organization in the country.

Gerber filed for and received nonprofit status for his new organization, and African-American clergyman John T. Graves signed on as president. Graves, Gerber and five other men were named as members of the organization’s board. The state of Illinois granted the Society for Human Rights its charter on Dec. 10, 1924. Gerber also started “Friendship and Freedom,” the SHR’s newsletter, which is the first known gay-interest publication. It only lasted for two issues, as most SHR members were afraid to have it mailed to their homes.

Gerber and Graves and the other board members decided to limit SHR membership to gay men, specifically excluding bisexuals. Unfortunately, SHR Vice President Al Weininger was married with two children. And Weninger’s wife reported SHR to a social worker in the summer of 1925, calling them “degenerates.”

Gerber was interrogated by police, who arrested him, Graves, Weininger and one other man. Even though Gerber was tried three times, charges against him were eventually dismissed. Still, it ruined his life: Defending himself cost him his life savings and he lost his job for “conduct unbecoming a postal worker.”

And the Society for Human Rights was destroyed in the process.

In 1927, Gerber traveled to New York, where a friend introduced him to an Army colonel who convinced Gerber to re-enlist. He served until 1945 when he received an honorable discharge. During that time, he ran a pen pal service called “Connections,” most of the members of which were heterosexual.

After leaving the military, Gerber lived in New York wrote for a number of publications, occasionally writing about the case for gay rights. Sometimes he used his own name; sometimes he wrote under the pen name Parisex.

Gerber also corresponded extensively with other gay men, discussing strategies for organizing and for addressing prejudices against gays.

Toward the end of his life, Gerber moved into the Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home in Washington, D.C., dying there on Dec. 31, 1972, at the age of 80.

 

Remembering Gerber

Gerber was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 1992, and The Gerber House was designated as a Chicago Landmark on June 1, 2001. Chicago’s Gerber/Hart Library is named in honor of Gerber and another early defender of gay rights, attorney Pearl M. Hart.

Recognition of the Gerber house will acknowledge the extraordinary significance of 1710 North Crilly Court not only to LGBTQ citizens but to America’s own account of its civil rights struggles, according to a press release from Rainbow Heritage Network, a national association for those concerned about the recognition and preservation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer history and heritage.

The Henry Gerber House nomination was prepared by Jonathan Farr, Amanda Hendrix-Komoto, Andrea Rottmann and April Slabosheski, graduate students at the University of Michigan, as part of the University of Michigan Public History Initiative. Their advisor was Dr. Michelle McClellan.

The nomination was presented to the Landmarks Committee by Amanda Hendrix-Komoto. The nomination was written as part of the National Park Service’s LGBTQ Heritage Initiative, which was announced at Stonewall by Secretary Jewell in May 2014. Mark Meinke, co-founder of the Rainbow Heritage Network and Megan Springate, prime consultant for the LGBTQ Heritage Initiative and co-founder of the Rainbow Heritage Network, were among those who spoke in support of the nomination.

There are only six places recognized by the National Historic Landmarks and National Register of Historic Places\programs for their association with LGBTQ history: Stonewall Inn in New York (a National Historic Landmark), The National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco (a National Monument), and Carrinton House in New York, Cherry Grove Community House and Theater in New York, the Dr. Franklin E. Kameny Residence in Washington, D.C., and the James Merrill House in Connecticut ( all on the National Register of Historic Places).

You can see the Gerber House nomination here.

The National Park Service LGBTQ Heritage Initiative is online here.

 

—  Tammye Nash

Chronicle blogger blames ‘It Gets Better” project for LGBT teen suicides

Kathleen McKinley

Kathleen McKinley

Kathy McKinley is a self-described “conservative activist” who blogs for the Houston Chronicle under the monicker “TexasSparkle.” In a recent post McKinley took the “It Gets Better” project to task for what she believes is their culpability in the suicides of LGBT teens:

“These kids were sold a bill of goods by people who thought they were being kind. The “It will get better” campaign just didn’t think it through. They didn’t think about the fact that kids are different from adults. They handle things differently. They react differently. Why? BECAUSE THEY ARE KIDS. You can grumble all day long how unfair it is that straight teens can be straight in high school, and gay kids can’t, but life is unfair. Isn’t the price they are paying too high?? Is it so much to ask them to stand at the door of adulthood before they “come out” publically? Because it may save their life.”

McKinnley’s primary confusion about the “It Gets Better” campaign (other than its name) is the assumption that the goal is to encourage teens to come out of the closet, or encourage them to become sexually active:

“Why in the world would you give teenagers a REASON to tease you? Oh, yes, because the adults tell you to embrace who you are, the only problem? Kids that age are just discovering who they are. They really have no idea yet. The adults tell you to “come out,” when what we should be telling them is that sex is for adults, and there is plenty of time for figuring out that later.”

I would like to encourage Ms. McKinley to watch the “It Gets Better” project’s founder Dan Savages’ video. Please, Ms. McKinley, listen, and tell me if you hear Savage or his partner Terry say anything about teens coming out or having sex. I think what you’ll hear them say is that all of the things that most kids, gay and straight, dream of (falling in love, starting a family, having the support of their parents, co-workers and friends) are possible for LGBT teens. I think you’ll hear them talk about how difficult their teen years were, and about the fears they had that their parents would reject them, that they’d never find success and that they’d always be alone.

Choosing to have sex is one of the most personal decision a person will ever make. For LGBT people, choosing to come out is another. I have not watched all of the thousands of videos from people who have participated in the “It Gets Better” project. It’s possible that there are a few that tell kids to come out right away, or to become sexually active, but I doubt it.

Every video in the project that I have seen has had the same simple message: that the person making it understands how tortuously awful the experience of being Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender in Junior and High School can be, but there is a wonderful world of loving, vibrant, successful, engaged LGBT adults out there and if queer teens can just hang on, just for a few years, they can join it. I doubt that any of the contributors to the project think that hanging on for a few years will be easy. I suspect that most of them remember, with excruciating clarity, contemplating ending those temporary years of terror with a permanent solution and that is why they choose to reach out.

I grew up without role models, where people like Barbara Gittings, Bayard Rustin and Harvey Milk didn’t exist . I grew up in a small town where the two men with the pink house were talked about in hushed tones that immediately fell silent when I walked into the room, because it wasn’t appropriate for children’s ears. I grew up in a world where my mother wouldn’t tell me what “gay” meant, where the evening news was turned off if it reported on the AIDS crisis, where I wasn’t given words to describe who I was, and so the only word I could find was “alone.”

I was lucky. My suicide attempt failed.

I was lucky, I survived, and went to college, and found a church that embraced and loved LGBT people. That’s where I met doctors and lawyers and business owners and teachers who were like me. That’s where I met two wonderful women who had built a life together for over 50 years. That’s where I discovered I wasn’t alone and that being gay didn’t mean that i couldn’t have all of those things I’d dreamed of.

That is what McKinley missed in her blog post. In her haste to lay blame on anything other than the overwhelming prejudice perpetuated by schools, churches and governments against LGBT people McKinley missed the fact that kids need role models. In her rush to shove queer teens back into the closet she forgot that human beings need the hope of a better world, lest they give up in despair.

McKinley got one thing right in her post. She titled it “Are Adults Also To Blame For Gay Teen Suicides? Yes.” Adults are to blame for LGBT teen suicides. When adults hide the stunning diversity of God’s creation from their children they create a vision of reality that some of those children can’t see themselves in. When adults tell LGBT teens that they should be invisible then it is all too clear who is to blame when those teens believe them, and take steps to make themselves invisible permanently.

To all the LGBT kids out there: it does get better. There are adults who care about you and want all the wonderful things you dream of to come true, but you have to hang on. If you need to keep who are secret to remain safe then do so. If you need someone to talk to please call the Trevor Project at 866-4-U-Trevor (866-488-7386).

—  admin

Final proof of inequities still to fight

Pioneering gay rights activist Frank Kameny died without enough money to pay for his burial

Frank-Kameny

Frank Kameny

Back in the dark ages when I was a teenager, I distinctly remember a conversation my father and mother had after dinner one night. Dad had just returned from one of his many trips to Washington, D.C., and on one of the flights he sat next to a doctor named Frank.

My father, a research scientist and member of dozens of honorary and scientific organizations, noticed that his seatmate was wearing a lapel pin. The pin was a gold “M,” and my dad assumed it was from a fraternal or professional group.

When he asked Frank about it he learned it stood for “Mattachine Society.”

That’s when my father’s voice dropped into a more hushed tone. He told my mother that the Mattachine Society was an organization of homosexuals and he had never imagined those kinds of people organizing.

Well that was in the 1960s and I was still a questioning teenager going through all the angst that a gay boy has when he is still trying to sort out his sexuality. Hearing the mention of the word “homosexual” in such hushed tones let me know in no uncertain terms it was not something polite people talked about, much less wore lapel pins identifying themselves as one.

I have no way of knowing the identity of that man on the airplane, but it is telling that the conversation stuck with me in such detail. Today, I wonder if the “Frank” my dad encountered on the flight from D.C. might have been Dr. Frank Kameny, a pioneer of the gay rights movement.

I will never know, but I do know that Frank’s work has affected me in ways that are profound.

Without the Mattachine Society and people like Frank Kameny, Harry Hay and others, I would not be writing in this publication, and most likely there would be no Dallas Voice.

Equally profound is the other connection I share with Frank — our age. No, I am not an octogenarian. But I am part of an aging LGBT population, and as such, I will most likely face some of the same problems.

Habaerman.Hardy.NEW

Hardy Haberman Flagging Left

As the LGBT population ages, threading the maze of social services will most likely become more difficult. Unlike our straight brothers and sisters, we cannot rely on a spouse’s health insurance or, in most cases, on the assistance of our children. We face legal problems of proper power of attorney should we become infirm and even funds for burial when we die.

Dr. Kameny was fired from his U.S. Army Map Service job in 1957. With that firing, any pension or benefits he might have accrued went up in smoke. Not having a family to help with social services and support as he aged, Kameny was dependent on the generosity of organizations like Helping Our Brothers and Sisters (HOBS) and individual friends to survive.

Having given most of his life to fighting for LGBT rights, he was left with little in the way of retirement funds.

Which brings us to today. Dr. Kameny died on Oct. 11, and he left a rich legacy of activism and passion for LGBT rights. Unfortunately, his riches ended at the altruistic level.

His estate contains many historical documents but little in the way of cash. So in order to defray the costs of his funeral, his friends and family have set up a fund with HOBS. There will be a testimonial dinner on Nov. 10 honoring Frank, but in lieu of flowers or tributes, his family requests donations be earmarked for his memorial expenses and given to: Helping our Brothers and Sisters, 1318 U Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20009.

You can also contribute through their website at:  HelpingOurBrothersAndSisters.com/donate.html.

Giving Frank a fitting funeral will be a small effort to honor a man who wore his sexuality on his lapel at a time when few people were even willing to talk about it.
Hardy Haberman is a longtime local LGBT activist and a board member of the Woodhull Freedom Alliance. His blog is at DungeonDiary.blogspot.com.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 28, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Pioneering gay activist Frank Kameny has died

Frank Kameny, center with 'Gay is Good' sign, was one of the most visible leaders of the early gay rights movement

Frank Kameny in 2009

The Washington Blade has reported that pioneering gay rights activist Franklin E. “Frank” Kameny died today at his home at age 86, apparently of natural causes.

Kameny, born and raised in New York City served in the Army and was a World War II combat veteran. After the war, he earned a doctorate in astronomy from Harvard and went on to work as an astronomer for the U.S. Army map service but was fired in the 1950s when Army officials discovered he was gay. Kameny contested the firing in the courts, eventually becoming the first person to file a gay-related case before the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court upheld lower court rulings against Kameny by refusing to hear the case, but the case was what prompted him to become a lifelong advocate for gay rights.

Kameny and Jack Nichols cofounded the Washington, D.C. chapter of one of the earliest gay rights organizations, the Mattachine Society, in 1961. In 1963, Kameny drafted the first bill to repeal Wasington, D.C.’s sodomy law — which finally happened in 1993 — and on April 17, 1965, Kameny and Nichols led the first public gay protest, a picket outside the White House.

Kameny also led the fight to get homosexuality removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s manual of mental disoders, which happened in 1973 in a vote taken during the association’s convention in Dallas. Kameny danced with Dallas gay rights advocate Phil Johnson at a dinner during that convention.

In 1971, Kameny became the first openly gay congressional candidate when he ran in 1971 in D.C.’s first race to elect a non-voting representative to Congress, and following that race, Kameny and his campaign organization created the Gay and Lesbian Alliance of Washington, D.C., which continues to lobby Congress on LGBT issues. Also in the 1970s, he became the first openly gay person appointed to D.C.’s Human Rights Commission, and he served 20 years on the Selective Service board.

The Library of Congress acquired Kameny’s papers documenting his life in 2006 and in 2007 The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History included signs and buttons from Kamen’s 1965 protest at the White House in an exhibit called “Treasures of American History.”

In 2009, Kameny’s home in Washington, D.C. was designated as a D./C. Historic Landmark; John Berry, director of the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management apologized to Kameny on behalf of the government and presented him the department’s most prestigious award, the Theodore Roosevelt Award.

In 2010, following a unanimous vote by the Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission, a portion of 17th Street was renamed “Frank Kameny Way,” and that same year, Kameny was presented with the Cornelius R. “Neal”Alexander Humanitarian Award.

—  admin