I wrote a few weeks ago about the Daughters of Bilitis and the homophile movement of the 1950s and 1960s. My goal was to push the gay and lesbian historical narrative well before Stonewall, offering a much more complicated picture of twentieth-century gay and lesbian activism. Well, tonight, I'm going to push that narrative even further back--this time, into the 1920s. Histories of the gay and lesbian movements often begin in 1950 with the founding of the Mattachine Society. Indeed, this is when political organization of gays and lesbians really picked up steam, but Mattachine was not the first American gay rights organization. That distinction goes to an organization that is barely mentioned in most gay history books: the Society for Human Rights (SHR), founded in 1924 by Henry Gerber. In tonight's diary, I'd like to give this short-lived organization just a bit of the attention it deserves as the first attempt to organize gays in the United States.
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We don't often think of the 1920s as being a time in which gays would attempt to organize. In fact, we often don't think of the 1920s as a time when gays even existed outside of the closet. But we have to be careful when we apply post-Stonewall terms like "the closet" and "coming out"--products of the 1970s gay liberation movement--to a time when those notions didn't exist, at least in their current forms.
To be sure, many gay men and lesbians (I'll be focusing almost exclusively on gay men in this diary) led double lives in the 1920s. But it was much more complicated than that. Historian George Chauncey explores the 1920s gay urban world in his groundbreaking book Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of a Gay Male World, 1890-1940 and found that gay life in this era was not as "closeted" as you might think. Actually, it was quite visible, and, Chauncey argues, more tolerated and less oppressed than in the McCarthy era. But, while gay life was extraordinarily visible in early-twentieth-century urban areas, it was also much different from our idea of gay life. For example, the binary homosexual-heterosexual axis that exists today was simply unthinkable in that time. Rather, many gay men consciously took on "effeminate," "woman-like" characteristics and built sexual lives as "fairies." They received sex from men considered heterosexual in that era--what they called "trade," otherwise known as "normal men." Trade were not considered gay in any sense of the word, since they were the dominant sexual partners. The sheer effeminacy of fairies allowed "normal men" to have sex with them freely without any challenge to their masculinity. I won't dwell on the gay urban culture of the early twentieth century, but I just wanted to establish some context for the SHR. If you want to know more about gay life in the early 1900s, I would highly recommend that you read Chauncey's Gay New York.
To establish further context for Gerber's failed SHR venture, it is important to cross the Atlantic Ocean for just a few moments to consider the political and cultural context for gays and lesbians in Germany during this period. While gay life in the United States--highly visible as noted above, but not politically organized--was largely limited to the bars and the drag balls, the homophile movement in Germany was in full swing. Physician and sexologist Magnus Hirschfield founded the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee (the board of which is pictured above, Hirschfield being the second from the right), the first gay rights organization in history, in 1897. This organization attempted to educate through its publication Jahrbuch für sexuelle Zwischenstufen (Yearbook for Intermediate Sexual Types) and fought against Paragraph 175, the provision of the German Penal Code which forbade "coitus-like" acts between men. In contrast to their American counterparts, gays in Germany were highly organized. For more information on and context for the German homophile movement, check out RFrancisR's diary. This Weimar-era movement, of course, would fall apart under Hitler's Third Reich, which specifically targeted gays and destroyed the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, driving Hirschfield into exile.
It was from the socially tolerant milieu of Weimar-era Germany that Henry Josef Dittmar emerged. After emigrating to the United States from Germany in 1913, Dittmar changed his name to Henry Gerber and settled in Chicago. His homosexuality would cause him to be admitted to a mental hospital in 1917, but he was released shortly thereafter. When the United States declared war on Germany, Gerber was forced to join the Army, lest he be interned as an enemy alien. He served the Allied Army of Occupation for three years as a printer and proofreader in Coblenz, Germany.
During his years in Germany, Gerber became exposed to the country's rather sophisticated homophile movement and thriving gay culture. He subscribed to at least one homophile publication and became immersed in gay literature. Upon completion of his military service, he returned to the United States and became a postal worker. But he did not forget the ideas put in his head by his association with German homophiles. He was astonished by how serious the German homophile movement was taken as it advocated for gay issues.
Gerber decided that the United States, too, needed a political gay organization to fight against sodomy laws and other forms of legal oppression. In 1924, he set out to found the Society for Human Rights. But it was not easy. As historian John Loughery describes in his book The Other Side of Silence: Men's Lives and Gay Identities: A Twentieth-Century History, starting an organization in 1920s Chicago was not nearly as easy as Gerber wanted it to be. What resulted was an organization less about political action (although, make no mistake, it was political) and more about education of broader society about--and the normalization of--homosexuality.
Most gay men in Chicago whom Gerber approached assured him that his project was sheer folly. Their view of themselves and their situation was set in stone: the dangers of independent action were too great; the idea of the "double life" and the "forbidden fruit" was not without its charm; and homosexuals were well-known to be fun-loving and apolitical, even militantly antiorganizational. Undeterred, Gerber eventually found six other men willing to put their names on articles of nonprofit incorporation...By specifying its aim as combating prejudice by the "dissemination of facts according to modern science among intellectuals of mature age," the Society for Human Rights further emphasized its character as a discussion group, not a proselytizing or social body and not a group that would have anything to do with minors. Like the later Mattachine Society, it would advance its program by means of lectures and a publication, to be entitled Friendship and Freedom. John Graves, an indigent preacher, agreed to be the group's president, in name anyway; Al Meininger ("a laundry queen," in Gerber's words) became the vice president; Gerber was to serve as secretary.The SHR's charter stated its purpose quite clearly. As you can see, the organization was on the defense from the beginning.
...to promote and to protect the interests of people who by reasons 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 Society stands only for law and order; it is in harmony with any and all general laws insofar as they protect the rights of others, and does in no manner recommend any acts in violation of present laws nor advocate any matter inimical to the public welfare.
After its formation, life for the SHR did not get any easier. Loughery continues:
Application to the state for a charter for the group went smoothly enough. "No one seemed to have bothered to investigate our purpose," Gerber noted. But any progress thereafter was thwarted by the usual obstacles: lack of funding, lack of grass-roots appeal, the fear prominent and respected men felt about lending their names to so radical an endeavor. The two issues of Friendship and Freedom that did appear were largely written and financed by Gerber himself, his comrades proving to be largely "illiterate and penniless." According to a secondhand source, the first issue contained an essay on self-control, a poem by [Walt] Whitman, and an article on Oscar Wilde and the wearing of green carnations as a gay code.In historian Jonathan Ned Katz's landmark 1976 Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A., Henry Gerber recalls the outline of the SHR's long-term plan:
1. We would cause the homosexuals to join our Society and gradually reach as large a number as possible.Unfortuately, aside from an issue of Friendship and Freedom, the SHR did not accomplish much that was tangible. Its life was abruptly cut short in the summer of 1925. Although the SHR was intended just for homosexual (and not bisexual) men, Al Meininger--unbeknownst to the other men in the SHR--had a wife and children. When Meininger's wife became privy to her husband's associations, she alerted the authorities, who then quickly suppressed the organization. Gerber recalls:
2. We would engage in a series of lectures pointing out the attitude of society in relation to their own behavior and especially urging against the seduction of adolescents.
3. Through a publication named Friendship and Freedom we would keep the homophile world in touch with the progress of our efforts. The publication was to refain from advocating sexual acts and would serve merely as a forum for discussion.
4. Through self-discipline, homophiles would win the confidence and assistance of legal authorities and legislators in understanding the problem; that these authorities should be educated on the futility and folly of long prison terms for those committing homosexual acts, etc.
One Sunday morning about 2 a.m., I returned from a visit downtown. After I had gone to my room, someone knocked at the door. Thinking it might be the landlady, I opened up. Two men entered the room. They identified themselves as a city detective and a newspaper reporter from the [Chicago] Examiner. The detective asked me where the boy was. What boy? He told me he had orders from his precinct captain to bring me to the police station. He took my typewriter, my notary public diploma, and all the literature of the Society and also personal diaries as well as my bookkeeeping accounts. At no time did he show a warrant for my arrest. At the police station I was locked up in a cell but no charges were made against me. In the morning I was given permission to call my boss who, for my work's sake, fixed my status as "absent on leave."On the first day in court, a detective produced a powder puff supposedly found in Gerber's room. This was entered as evidence of his effeminacy. Gerber further recalls:
With a few other persons, unknown to me, I was taken to the Chicago Avenue Police Court where I also found John the preacher and Al the laundry queen and a young man who happened to be in Al's room at the time of arrest. No one knew what had happened. A friendly cop at the station showed me a copy of the Examiner. There right on the front page I found this incredible story:
Strange Sex Cult Exposed
The article mentioned Al who had brought his male friends home and had, in full view of his wife and children, practiced "strange sex acts" with them. Al's wife at last called a social worker who reported these "strange doings" to the police. A raid of the flat, the report continued, had turned up John, a preacher, and Henry, a postal employee, and all were put under arrest. Among the effects in Al's flat they found a pamphlet of this "strange sex cult" which "urged men to leave their wives and children."
The young social worker, a hatchet-faced female, read from my diary, out of context: "I love Karl." The detective and the judge shuddered over such depravity. To the already prejudiced court we were obviously guilty. We were guilty just by being homosexual. This was the court's conception of our "strange cult."But eventually, after getting a good lawyer and another judge, the case against the men was dismissed. The judge even reprimanded the prosecution for arresting the men without a warrant. Only Meininger, who had pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, received a punishment: a fine of $10 and court costs. The judge also ordered Gerber's property to be returned to him. Everything was returned except the diaries, which ad been turned over to postal inspectors, never to be seen again. Although the men "won" in court, the parting shot made by the detective--"What was the idea of the Society of Human Rights, anyway? Was it to give you birds the legal right to rape every boy on the street?"--indicated the sheer level of homophobia that the SHR had been up against and, ultimately, unable to challenge in a serious way. As Gerber puts it:
The judge spoke little to us and adjourned court with the remark he thought ours was a violation of the Federal law against sending obscene matter through the mails. Nothing in our first issue of Friendship and Freedom could be considered "obscene" of course.
The experience generally convinced me that we were up against a solid wall of ignorance, hypocrisy, meanness and corruption. The wall had won.Indeed, Gerber paid a high price for his SHR venture. A few weeks after the case was dismissed, he received a letter from Washington informing him that he had been dismissed from the Post Office Department for "conduct unbecoming a postal worker." The Society for Human Rights was officially dead.
Gerber continued to be something of a gay activist. Under the pen name "Parisex," he wrote an influential essay in June 1932 in The Modern Thinker titled "In Defense of Homosexuality." Gerber's Society for Human Rights would later serve as an inspiration for the more successful Mattachine Society.
So the SHR was not simply a link between the German homophile movement and early American gay activism. It also helped form a foundation and a precedent for other American homophile organizations that would be founded in the 1950s. In addition, the SHR is important as an example of early gay resistance. The overarching message of this diary is the same as the message of my Daughters of Bilitis diary: that gay resistance did not begin with Stonewall. It is true that the SHR failed as a political organization, but it would be a mistake to boil gay resistance down to political activism. As Chauncey points out in Gay New York:
Most gay men [in the early twentieth century] did not speak out against anti-gay policing so openly, but to take this as evidence that they had internalized anti-gay attitudes is to ignore the strength of the forces arrayed against them, to misinterpret silence as acquiescence, and to construe resistance in the narrowest of terms--as the organization of formal political groups and petitions. The history of gay resistance must be understood to extend beyond formal political organizing to include the strategies of everyday resistance that men devised in order to claim space for themselves in the midst of a hostile society. Given the effective prohibition of gay sociability and the swift and certain consequences that most men could expect if their homosexuality were revealed, both the willingness of some men to carry themselves openly and the ability of other gay men to create and hide an extensive gay social world need to be considered forms of resistance to overwhelming social pressure. The full panoply of tactics gay men devised for communicating, claiming space, and affirming themselves--the kind of resistant social practices that the political theorist James Scott has called the tactics of the weak--proved to be remarkably successful in the generations before a more formal gay political movement developed. Such tactics did not directly challenge anti-gay policing in the way that the movement would, but in the face of that policing they allowed many gay men not just to survive but to flourish--to build happy, self-confident, and loving lives.The SHR was not a mere anomaly. It was the logical outgrowth of gay men's constant everyday resistance in the early twentieth century against heterosexist American society. It was this "nonpolitical"--while, at the same time, very political--resistance that laid the groundwork for the later homophile movement and gay liberation. We have much to owe to Henry Gerber and the other men who risked everything to found the Society for Human Rights.
One striking sign of the strength of the gay male subculture was its ability to provide its members with the resources necessary to reject the dominant culture's definition of them as sick, criminal, and unworthy. Some gay men internalized the anti-homosexual attitudes pervasive in their society. Many others bitterly resented the dominant culture's insistence that their homosexuality rendered them virtual women and despised the men among them who seemed to embrace an "effeminate" style...Many gay men resisted the medical judgment that they were mentally ill and needed treatment, despite the fact that medical discourse was one of the most powerful anti-gay forces in American culture (and one to which some recent social theories have attributed almost limitless cultural power). Numerous doctors reported their astonishment at discovering in their clinical interviews with "inverts" that their subjects rejected the efforts of science, religion, popular opinion, and the law to condemn them as moral degenerates. One doctor lamented that the working-class "fags" he interviewed in New York's city jail in the early 1920s actually claimed they were "proud to be degenerates, [and] do not want nor care to be cured." Indeed, it became the reluctant consensus among doctors that most inverts saw nothing wrong with their homosexuality; it was this attitude, they repeatedly noted, that threatened to make the "problem" of homosexuality so intractable.