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
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.
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.
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
Inspired by German struggle
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.
“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.’
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
Gerber came back to Chicago determined to start
“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
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,
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
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.
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.
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 &
“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.”
“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
“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
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.
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