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German movement inspired U.S. organizing

Lesbian, gay, bi and trans pride series part 30

Published Mar 30, 2005 10:16 AM

The German Homosexual Emancipation Movement inspired organizing in the U.S., too. As early as 1906 and 1907, spokes people from the Scientific-Humani tarian Committee traveled to New York to talk about their movement building.

Anarchist Emma Goldman, who said she was influenced by the writings of German gay leader Magnus Hirschfeld as well as women prisoners, made homosexual freedom a theme of her 1915 lectures across the U.S.

Male soldiers shipped overseas to Europe during World War I came into contact with the gay, trans and lesbian movement in Germany. At least one GI became enthused about bringing that organizing back to the U.S.

In December 1924, Henry Gerber founded the first known homosexual rights group in the United States: the Society for Human Rights.

This early attempt to organize was solely male. Lesbian historian Lillian Faderman notes that, “By the 1920s there were already a few established communities of women who identified themselves as lesbian, in some astonishing places such as Salt Lake City as well as in more likely areas such as San Francisco.” (Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers)

African American lesbians, including cross-dressers, were part of the rising Harlem Renaissance.

And although the widespread baiting from pundits and pulpits about the “mannish women” of the women’s rights movement was meant to be a slur, lesbians were drawn to the struggle.

But it wasn’t until World War II, when large numbers of U.S. women were mobilized in the ranks of the military and in wartime industry, that lesbian organizing—in its own name—took hold.

Inspired by German struggle

Gerber was a Bavarian-born GI whose family had emigrated to the U.S. around 1913. He was institutionalized briefly in 1917 for being homosexual. During World War I, Gerber was forced to choose between joining the U.S. Army or being interned as an “enemy alien.”

He chose the Army. He was later deployed to the Rhineland as part of the Army occupation force there from 1920 to 1923. He worked as a printer and proofreader in Coblenz.

While there, Gerber was inspired by the German Homosexual Emancipation Movement.

He wrote, “In Coblenz on the Rhine I had subscribed to German homophile magazines and made several trips to Berlin, which was then not occupied by American forces. I had always bitterly felt the injustice with which my own American society accused the homosexual of ‘immoral acts.’

“What could be done about it, I thought. Unlike Germany, where the homosexual was partially organized and where sex legislation was uniform for the whole country, the United States was in a condition of chaos and misunderstanding concerning its sex laws, and no one was trying to unravel the tangle and bring relief to the abused.”

Gerber came back to Chicago determined to start organizing homosexuals.

“The beginning of all movements is necessarily small,” he wrote. “I was able to gather together a half dozen of my friends and the Society for Human Rights became an actuality. Through a lawyer our program was submitted to the Secretary of State at Springfield, and we were furnished with a State Charter. No one seemed to have bothered to investigate our purpose.”

The group’s statement of purpose in the incorporation documents reads, in part, “... to promote and to protect the interests of people who by reason 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 facts according to modern science among intellectuals of mature age.”

The name “Society for Human Rights,” he noted, was “the same name used by the homosexuals of Germany for their work.”

Gerber was reportedly rebuffed by prominent sex reform advocates he approached. “I needed noted medical authorities to endorse us. But they usually refused to endanger their reputations.”

Gerber recalled, “The only support I got was from poor people: John, a preacher who earned his room and board by preaching brotherly love to small groups of [African Americans]; Al, an indigent laundry queen; and Ralph whose job with the railroad was in jeopardy when his nature became known. These were the national officers of the Society for Human Rights, Inc.”

The group, which consisted of about half a dozen people, concentrated their efforts on the state of Illinois. There, anal intercourse was the only prohibited sex act—punishable from one to 10 years in prison. This was not unusual. The penalty in Georgia for “sodomy” at that time was life behind bars.

“It is hard to believe that Mother Nature needs our police to protect her from her creatures,” Gerber bitterly observed.


The Society set out to organize homosexuals, create a series of lecture events and publish a newsletter. Gerber quickly produced two issues of the first-known homophile publication in the United States: “Friendship and Freedom.”

The primary goal of the society, Gerber stressed, was to decriminalize same-sex acts in Illinois. That objective proved harder to achieve.

In July 1925, police raided the homes of the group’s leaders. They had no warrants for the arrests. Henry Gerber, Al Meininger and the Rev. John T. Graves were jailed.

A reporter from the Chicago Examiner was allowed to accompany the detective who arrested Gerber in his home. The newspaper ran a front-page story declaring “Strange Sex Cult Exposed.”

Gerber endured three trials that cost him his life savings of $800. The charges were finally dismissed. He lost his job; his bosses at the post office fired him for conduct unbecoming to a postal worker. Gerber concluded, “That definitely meant the end of the Society for Human Rights.”

Gerber re-enlisted in the Army. While stationed on Governor’s Island in New York, he wrote articles in homophile publications under a nom de plume. He briefly wrote for Chanticleer, a mimeographed 1934 gay publication.

And throughout the 1930s Gerber ran Contacts—a homosexual correspondence “pen pals” club that served as a national communication network for gay men.

“When he folded Contacts club in 1939, member Monwell Boyfrank pestered him to get something started; and he, Frank McCourt, Boyfrank and others wrote one another for years, arguing how to organize homosexuals,” Jim Kepner recalled in his 1985 pamphlet, “Gay Movement History & Goals.”

“They never realized that their radically different views on the nature of homosexuals and of society left little chance for them to agree on how to improve the homosexual condition. Without common goals, they couldn’t evolve clear or practical tactics.”

Kepner concluded, “A Gerber friend who’d lacked the nerve to join SHR brought out young Harry Hay in Los Angeles’ Pershing Square in 1930, and told him about the group, inspiring Harry to imitation. But to start a group, you need at least one other person, and it took Harry 20 years to find that other—the late famed fashion designer Rudi Gernreich.”

The seeds of the early homosexual rights movement took root.

By the end of World War II, recalls Barry D. Adam, “The first stirrings of move ment activity in the United States appeared among recently demobilized men in the Veterans Benevolent Associ ation in New York and among working women in Los Angeles. Both groups developed out of existing friendship networks and made no attempt to go public.” (“The Rise of a Gay and Lesbian Movement”)

In 1947 and 1948, “Lisa Ben”—an anagram for lesbian—published nine issues of a publication she titled “Vice Versa: America’s Gayest Magazine.”

“Lisa Ben” had come out as a lesbian in the World War II era. She moved from the small agricultural community in Cali fornia where she’d been born and raised to Los Angeles in search of a job. There she also found a women’s boardinghouse where “she met for the first time lesbians who took her to gay bars and introduced her to other gay women.”

And in 1950 Harry Hay did start an organization—Mattachine. Hay’s vision of organizing was much more like that of some of the radical leaders of the German Homosexual Emancipation Movement. Because Harry Hay was a communist.

Next: Communist impact on homosexual and women’s rights organizing.