Henry Gerber pioneered gay rights advocacy in America decades early

Heinrich Joseph Dittmar was born on June 29, 1892, in the city of Passau in Bavaria but he changed his name to “Henry Gerber” upon emigrating to the United States in 1913.

In 1917, Gerber was briefly committed to a mental institution because of his homosexuality. When the United States declared war on Germany, Gerber was given a choice: be interned as an enemy alien or enlist in the Army.

Gerber chose the Army and he was assigned to work as a printer and proofreader with the Allied Army of Occupation in Coblenz.

When the soldier was stationed in Germany from 1920 to 1923, Gerber saw the rise of homophile organizations, as gay rights groups were once called.

Gerber was inspired by the work of Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, founder of the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, an organization dedicated to overturning Germany’s anti-homosexual rulings.

Gerber believed there should be an organization like this in America, too, and upon returning to Chicago in 1924, he dedicated himself to developing one.

The group came together in December 1924 as the Society for Human Rights, the first gay rights organization in America.

They produced the first ever gay rights newsletter in the country, called “Freedom and Friendship.”

Shortly after the newsletter was disseminated, Gerber’s home was raided by police.

He was arrested, his papers were confiscated, he lost his job and life savings.

The Society fell apart. Later, Gerber relocated in 1927, to New York City, where a friend from his Army days introduced him to a colonel. The officer encouraged Gerber to re-enlist and he did.

Gerber was posted to Fort Jay on Governors Island and his post-war talents as a proofreader and editor likely put to use by the Army Recruiting Bureau in the production of their magazines and recruiting publications.

It was likely that such low profile office work allowed him to continue in the Army, with occasional harassment until 1945, when he received an honorable discharge.

During his second enlistment, Gerber ran a pen pal service called “Connections” beginning in 1930. The service typically had between 150 and 200 members, the majority of whom were heterosexual. He continued writing articles for a variety of magazines, including one called Chanticleer, in which he sometimes made the case for homosexual rights.

It was the norm for gay writers to use pseudonyms when writing on gay matters; he sometimes wrote under his own name but often using the name “Parisex,” Gerber continued to write for the next 30 years.

Although embittered by his experiences, Gerber maintained contacts within the fledgling homophile movement of the 1950s, continued to agitate for the rights of homosexuals and practiced his activism until his death in the 1970s.

Gerber was 80 years old when he died on December 31, 1972. He is buried in the United States Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery .

Gerber has been repeatedly recognized for his contributions to the LGBT movement.

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