Gerber Founds the Society for Human Rights Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Society for Human Rights, a nonprofit social justice organization and the first documented gay rights organization in the United States, was created in an effort to spearhead a U.S. gay rights movement. Although the organization was short-lived, it is said to have inspired the founding in 1950 of the Mattachine Society, the better-known gay rights group for men.

Summary of Event

The state of Illinois, on December 10, 1924, issued a charter to a new human rights organization, a nonprofit corporation with the stated objective “to promote and protect the interests of people who by reasons of mental and physical abnormalities are abused and hindered in the legal pursuit of happiness.” Called the Society for Human Rights, the group was formed by Henry Gerber, who served with the Army of Occupation in Germany after World War I. He founded the society, according to its charter, as a means “to combat the public prejudices…by dissemination of factors according to modern science among intellectuals of mature age.” Gerber wanted the society to help promote social equality and encourage acceptance of “alternative” sexual lifestyles. He had arranged for the Reverend John T. Graves to sign the society’s charter as president, along with Al Meininger as vice president. While these two men assisted Gerber in running the organization, ultimately it was Gerber who did most of the work and bore all the costs for its maintenance. [kw]Gerber Founds the Society for Human Rights (Dec. 10, 1924) [kw]Society for Human Rights, Gerber Founds the (Dec. 10, 1924) [kw]Human Rights, Gerber Founds the Society for (Dec. 10, 1924) [kw]Rights, Gerber Founds the Society for Human (Dec. 10, 1924) Society for Human Rights Civil rights;early organizations for Human Rights, Society for [c]Organizations and institutions;Dec. 10, 1924: Gerber Founds the Society for Human Rights[0270] [c]Civil rights;Dec. 10, 1924: Gerber Founds the Society for Human Rights[0270] [c]Government and politics;Dec. 10, 1924: Gerber Founds the Society for Human Rights[0270] [c]Publications;Dec. 10, 1924: Gerber Founds the Society for Human Rights[0270] Gerber, Henry Graves, John T. Meininger, Al

In early 1925, Gerber created the first publication in the United States intended for a gay audience. Friendship and Freedom’s Friendship and Freedom (periodical) goal was to attract members to the society and act as a forum for discussing the difficulties faced by early twentieth century urban homosexuals. However, very few individuals were willing to receive Friendship and Freedom, fearing the publication would make it easy for police to find and target them as criminals. Persons engaging in same-gender sexual relations were considered criminals by law in 1920’s America. In this era, U.S. postal censors cooperated with local law enforcement to identify what were then called “sex deviants.”

Because of widespread apprehension within the gay community, and because of low membership, the society foundered. Chicago police, though, dealt the group its final blow soon after the initial production of Friendship and Freedom. Gerber, Graves, and Meininger were jailed after Meininger’s wife approached a social worker about her husband’s involvement in a homosexual organization. The social worker in turn informed police.

Soon after, the three leaders of the society were arrested, along with a young man who, according to a news story, was in Meininger’s bedroom at the time of Meininger’s arrest. Gerber said that the Chicago Herald and Examiner reported the society’s breakup under the headline “Strange Sex Cult Exposed.” (Historian Jonathan Ned Katz, in his 1976 book Gay American History, wrote in a footnote that this article could not be located by a researcher. He adds, though, that the article might have appeared at an earlier time.)

During the trial for the three men, the prosecution maintained that the society’s publication Friendship and Freedom violated federal laws regarding the mailing of obscene Obscenity laws;and gay publications[gay publications] materials through the U.S. postal service. The “obscenity” in question was the discussion of homosexuality. Eventually, upon reassignment of a new judge, the case was dismissed. Yet Gerber’s legal defense still cost him his life savings. Meininger pled guilty to disorderly conduct and was fined. All undistributed copies of Friendship and Freedom were confiscated, and the Society for Human Rights was disbanded.

Significance

It is difficult to assess the historical impact of an organization when its message had been so poorly received by the demographic to which it was geared. The Society for Human Rights sought bring together and empower the homosexual community of early twentieth century Chicago, yet widespread fear inhibited the realization of the society’s goals.

Nonetheless, the founding and then dismantling of the society had significantly impacted Henry Gerber’s life. The turmoil of the event made him bitter toward homosexuals, and, ultimately, he also resented trying to rally gays to fight for equality. This sense of animosity shaped Gerber’s future social justice endeavors and his outlook on civil rights.

While the society did not have an immediate impact on gays and lesbians living in 1920’s Chicago (aside from publicly embarrassing three gay men in the media), the organization’s existence is a historical barometer of the social and cultural conditions that gays endured at the time. Furthermore, scholars could use this moment in history to understand the sense of community and collectivized pride, or lack thereof, germinating among gays in the era.

As the first gay rights and advocacy organization of its kind, however, the society helped clear a path for future gay and lesbian rights groups and organizations to follow. The society is believed to have inspired and influenced the creation in 1950 of the successful and long-running Mattachine Society. Society for Human Rights Civil rights;early organizations for Human Rights, Society for

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bullough, Vern L., ed. Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context. New York: Harrington Park Press, 2002.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. New York: Basic Books, 1994.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gerber, Henry. “The Society for Human Rights—1925.” ONE 10, no. 9 (1962): 5-11.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Haeberle, E. J. “A Movement of Inverts: An Early Plan for a Homosexual Organization in the United States.” Journal of Homosexuality 1/2 (1984): 127-133.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heap, Chad. Homosexuality in the City: A Century of Research at the University of Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Katz, Jonathan Ned. Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A., a Documentary History. 1976. Rev. ed. New York: Meridian, 1992.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Homosexual Emancipation Miscellany, c. 1835-1952. New York: Arno Press, 1975.

1906: Friedlaender Breaks with the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee

1950: Mattachine Society Is Founded

1952: ONE, Inc., Is Founded

1955: Daughters of Bilitis Founded as First National Lesbian Group in United States

February 19-20, 1966: First North American Conference of Homophile Organizations Convenes

August 11-18, 1968: NACHO Formally Becomes the First Gay Political Coalition

Categories: History Content