Monday, January 8, 2018
January 8, 2018: Gay Rights Histories: The Society for Human Rights (1924)
[On January 9th, 1978 Harvey Milk was inaugurated to a seat on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, making him one of America’s first openly gay elected officials. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Milk and other historical moments and events in the early history of the Gay Rights Movement, leading up to a weekend post on an impressive visual exhibit on the movement at Fitchburg State University.]
Three contexts for the brief and frustrating yet important and inspiring history of America’s first gay rights organization.
1) Germany: The Society’s founder, Henry Gerber, immigrated to Chicago from Germany in 1913 at the age of 21; he enlisted in the US army during WWI and ended up back in Germany, working as a printer for the Allied Army of Occupation between 1920 and 1923. While there he connected to the work of German physician and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld and his Bund für Menschenrechte (Association for Human Rights), a pioneering organization (linked to Hirschfeld’s work with a group known as the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee) dedicated to both supporting gay communities and advocating for sexuality as a shared aspect of human identity. When Gerber returned to the US and became a postal worker in Chicago, he decided to create his own such organization, filing an application for a charter for a non-profit Society for Human Rights in December 1924. While the first world war is often described as a moment of new international (even global) conflict, and of the ruptures that contributed to the rise of Modernism (among other effects), Gerber’s German influences (like his immigration story) illustrate the era’s and America’s concurrent possibilities for international connections and collaborations.
2) Comstock: As you might expect, Gerber and the Society met with immediate and innumerable challenges. One of the most significant, and certainly the most ironic given Gerber’s day job as a postal service worker, was the Comstock Act (1873), which crimilinalized sending materials deemed “obscene” or “immoral” through the mail. Given that all gay-oriented publications (even those with no overt erotic elements) were deemed obscene until the Supreme Court’s decision in One, Inc. v. Olesen (1958), the Society was not able to communicate via mail at all without violating the law; for example, while Gerber founded and edited two issues of a newsletter, Friendship and Freedom, he likely did not mail it to any members, and no extant copies of it are known to have survived. Such social and legal challenges proved insurmountable, as in 1925 Gerber and other founding members were arrested; Gerber would be tried in court three times before the charges against him were dismissed, and in the process he lost all his personal papers, all remaining issues of Friendship and Freedom, and all of his personal savings as well. While the Society served as an influence and inspiration for later gay rights organizations, its own history was tragically short-lived and circumscribed.
3) John T. Graves: That frustratingly quick end in no way minimizes the Society’s significance, of course, nor the many layers to its community and histories. One of the most compelling to this AmericanStudier is that of John T. Graves, an African American preacher in Chicago who signed the Society’s inauguration papers (along with his partner, a railroad worker named Ralph Ellsworth Booher) and served as the Society’s first and only President. That’s about all of the information that I’ve been able to learn about Graves as of this writing, but even those few tidbits present so many complicated and compelling layers: the intersection of race and religion with this early gay rights organization and movement. As I detailed in this post, Bayard Rustin is often seen as one of the first figures to bring those different American communities and histories together; but four decades earlier, John Graves apparently did so as well. Just one more reason to better remember and engage with the frustrating but fascinating history of the Society for Human Rights.
Next history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other histories or stories you’d highlight?