The Society for Human Rights—1925
ONE, September, 1962
By Henry Gerber
The joyful news that the State of Illinois had recently, to some extent at
least, given up its persecution of homosexuals was appreciatively received by
all of us concerned. Just 37 years ago, in 1925, a few of my friends and
myself were dragged off to jail in Chicago causing our own efforts to
ameliorate the plight of homosexuals to come to an early end.
From 1920 to 1923, I had served with the Army of Occupation in Germany
after World War I. 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." I hated this society which allowed the majority, frequently
corrupt itself, to persecute those who deviated from the established norms in
What 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 the abused.
The "holy book" of the Hebrews had, 3,000 years ago, forbade
certain non-procreative sex acts. Christianity and the State have put holy
matrimony upon a pedestal and they defend this institution by outlawing all
other means of sexual gratification.
To go before each State legislature and argue the real nature of
homosexuality would be plainly a job too costly to be considered. The conduct
of many homosexuals in their unpardonable public behavior clearly led to
public protest against all homosexuals. Here were only two stumbling blocks on
the road to reform.
I realized at once that homosexuals themselves needed nearly as much
attention as the laws pertaining to their acts. How could one go about such a
difficult task? The prospect of going to jail did not bother me. I had a vague
idea that I wanted to help solve the problem. I had not yet read the opinion
of Clarence Darrow that "no other offence has ever been visited with such
severe penalties as seeking to help the oppressed." All my friends to
whom I spoke about my plans advised against my doing anything so rash and
futile. I thought to myself that if I succeeded I might become known to
history as deliverer of the downtrodden, even as Lincoln. But I am not sure my
thoughts were entirely upon fame. If I succeeded in freeing the homosexual, I
too would benefit.
What was needed was a Society, I concluded. My boss, whom I had pleased by
translating a work of philosophy from tile German, helped me write a
Declaration of Purpose for our new Society for Human Rights, the same name
used by the homosexuals of Germany for their work. The first difficulty was in
rounding up enough members and contributors so the work could go forward. The
average homosexual, I found, was ignorant concerning himself. Others were
fearful. Still others were frantic or depraved. Some were blasé.
Many homosexuals told me that their search for forbidden fruit was the real
spice of life. With this argument they rejected our aims. We wondered how we
could accomplish anything with such resistance from our own people.
The outline of our plan was as follows:
- We would cause the homosexuals to join our Society and gradually reach
as large a number as possible.
- 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.
- 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 refrain from advocating sexual acts and would serve
merely as a forum for discussion.
- 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.
The beginning of all movements is necessarily small. 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.
As secretary of the new organization I wrote to many prominent persons
soliciting their support. Most of them failed to understand our purpose. The
big, fatal, fearful obstacle seemed always to be the almost willful
misunderstanding and ignorance on the part of the general public concerning
the nature of homosexuality. What people generally thought about when I
mentioned the word had nothing to do with reality. Against human stupidity
even the gods fight in vain. What could one accomplish trying to help such
Nevertheless, we made a good start, even though at my own expense, and the
first step was under way. The State Charter had only cost $10.00. I then set
about putting out the first issue of Friendship and Freedom and worked
hard on the second issue. It soon became apparent that my friends were
illiterate and penniless. I had to both write and finance. Two issues, alas,
were all we could publish. The most difficult task was to get men of good
reputation to back up the Society. I needed noted medical authorities to
endorse us. But they usually refused to endanger their reputations.
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 Negroes; 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, Inc. I realized this start was dead wrong, but after
all, movements always start small and only by organizing first and correcting
mistakes later could we expect to go on at all. The Society was bound to
become a success, we felt, considering the modest but honest plan of
operation. It would probably take long years to develop into anything worth
while. Yet I was willing to slave and suffer and risk losing my job and
savings and even my liberty for the ideal.
One of our greatest handicaps was the knowledge that homosexuals don't
organize. Being thoroughly cowed, they seldom get together. Most feel that as
long as some homosexual sex acts are against the law, they should not let
their names be on any homosexual organization's mailing list any more than
notorious bandits would join a thieves' union. Today there are at least a half
dozen homophile organizations working openly for the group, but still the
number of dues-paying members is very small when we know that there are
several million homosexuals in the U. S.
We decided to concentrate our efforts on the State of Illinois. The laws of
Illinois in 1925 were comparatively liberal in that sodomy was of the common
law type, that is, the existing sodomy law only involved one sex act, anal
intercourse (pedication). All other forms of sex activity by the homosexual
were punishable as "disorderly conduct," when in public. The
punishment for sodomy was from one to ten years in prison. Sodomy included all
extreme and rare acts such as the brutal raping of children and the causing of
physical injury. Cases of this sort should really be included in the rape
statute, but are not, thus making no distinction between the harmless sex act
between consenting adults and a heinous crime. The "crime against
nature" could, in Illinois, also be committed by a man with a woman, in
the same manner or with an animal. The word homosexual does not appear in any
sodomy laws of any penal code. In the new Illinois sex code there is a
reference to "deviates," both homophile and heterophile.
It is hard to believe that Mother Nature needs our police to protect her
from her creatures. If such a nonsensical expression as "crime against
nature" can be used at all, it should be only in the case of abortion,
where an interference of the bodily function of birth takes place. But this
crime could only refer to heterosexuals.
According to the research of Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, only about 8% of
homosexuals practice the anal act. In Illinois all other forms of homosexual
intercourse were handled as disorderly conduct—but only if practiced openly.
When the State of Illinois later amended the sodomy provision, oral acts were
also included. Since most homosexuals have their dealings with partners who
are also guilty of sodomy, and in the privacy of their homes, an arrest for
sodomy rarely occurs. This is why few are frightened by the heavy penalties
for sodomy (life imprisonment in Georgia). The absurdity of the Illinois law
in 1925 is obvious. Yet it was substantially better than most other States.
Jesus was allegedly betrayed by one of his intimate male circle of twelve
apostles, The Society for Human Rights' downfall also happened to come from
within. We had agreed to make our organization a purely homophile Society, and
we had argued and decided to exclude the much larger circle of bisexuals for
the time being. Neither I nor John, our elected president, had been conscious
of the fact that our vice-president, Al, was that type. In fact, we later
found out that he had a wife and two small children. I had once visited him at
his home on Rush Street, but had no idea that the woman living next door was
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 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 bookkeeping 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."
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 had 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."
What an outright untruth; what a perversion of facts! John was alone in his
room when arrested, and I was too. We were not with Al; nor did we know of his
being married and having children.
There had been no warrants obtained for our arrests. The police, I suppose,
had hoped or expected to find us in bed. They could not imagine homosexuals in
any other way. My property was taken without excuse. This, in the United
States anno domini 1925 with the Constitution to protect the people
from unreasonable arrest and search. Shades of the Holy Inquisition.
So, that was it! Al had confessed his sins but assured us that the
reports of the detective and reporter were distorted. On Monday, the day after
our arrest, in the Chicago Avenue Police Court, the detective triumphantly
produced a powder puff which he claimed he found in my room. That was the sole
evidence of my crime. It was admitted as evidence of my effeminacy. I have
never in my life used rouge or powder. 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
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.
At this first trial the court dismissed us to the Cook County Jail. Our
second trial was to be on Thursday. They separated John from Al and me. In our
cell Al broke out crying and felt deeply crushed for having gotten us into the
mess. George, who had been arrested with Al, did not lose any time while a
guest of the Chicago police. Among the prisoners was a young Jew who asked me
if I wanted a lawyer. He recommended a friend of his, a "shyster"
lawyer who practiced around criminal courts. I made a request to see him and
he appeared the next morning. He seemed to be a smart fellow who probably knew
how to fix the State Attorney and judges. He had the reputation of making a
good living taking doubtful cases. He also handled the bail bond racket and
probably made additional money each month from this shady practice.
The lawyer told me at once that our situation looked serious. But he said
he could get me out on bail. He would charge $200.00 for each trial. I
accepted his services, although I know that it would have been cheaper to
merely accept the maximum fine of $200.00.
We were in a tough spot. Nietzsche once wrote in his Dawn of Day
"Ever since the creation of the world, no authority was willing to be
made the object of criticism ..." The following Thursday the four of us
were taken before the same judge. This time two postoffice inspectors were
also present. Before the judge appeared in court, one of the inspectors
promised that he would see to it that we got heavy prison sentences for
infecting God's own country.
As the trial began, our attorney demanded that we be set free since no
stitch of evidence existed to hold us. The judge became angry and ordered our
attorney to shut up or be cited for contempt. The postoffice inspectors said
that the federal commissioner would take the case under advisement from the
obscenity angle. The second trial was then adjourned until Monday. The lawyer
made one last request that we be released on bail. The judge hemmed and hawed
but set bail at $1,000.00 for each of us. The lawyer made all the arrangements
and collected his fees.
Being a free man once more, I went down to the post office to report for
work. But I was told that I had been suspended—more of the dirty work of the
postoffice inspectors. Next I called upon the managing editor of the Examiner.
I confronted him with the article in the paper. He told me he would look
into the matter and make corrections, but nothing was ever done. I had no
means to sue the paper, and that was the end of that.
Meanwhile a friend of mine succeeded in getting me a better lawyer—the
one who had made our request for a charter. He agreed to take my case, also
for $200.00 a trial. Calling the shyster, I told him of my inability to pay
for another trial.
Three Times Tried is the title of a book dealing with the trials of
Oscar Wilde. For we founders of the Society for Human Rights it was to be our
third appearance in court. But unlike the fate of Oscar Wilde, our's turned
out altogether differently. I knew before hand that our case would be
dismissed since my new lawyer advised me that everything had been
The day of the third trial we met a new judge. The detective who had made
the arrests was there, the prosecuting attorney, the two post office
inspectors, and even my first lawyer who found he had become interested in the
case. The judge, who had reviewed our earlier trials, immediately reprimanded
the prosecution. He said "It is an outrage to arrest persons without a
warrant. I order the case dismissed." Al who had pleaded guilty to
disorderly conduct received a fine of $10.00 and costs. The social worker was
not present at this trial. Our lawyer told the judge in the presence of the
baffled post office inspectors that he knew for sure that the Commissioner
would take no action as far as the alleged obscenity of mailed literature was
concerned. The judge also ordered the detective to return my property to me. I
got my typewriter, but my diaries had been turned over to the postal
inspectors and I never saw them again. I had never put down in my diaries
anything that could be used against me, fortunately.
Since I had paid the fine for Al, we were all set free. The fellow who had
been with Al also went free. As we prepared to leave, the prosecuting attorney
spoke to me. "Well, its all over now and there are no hard feelings on my
part. I admit I had nothing on you, but the boy who had been rooming with the
preacher had confessed to having sex with him." Ah! This explained the
question of the detectives when they arrested me. "Where is the
boy?" This had puzzled me ever since. The experience generally convinced
me that we were up against a solid wall of ignorance, hypocrisy, meanness and
corruption. The wall had won. The parting jibe of the detective had been,
"What was the idea of the Society for Human Rights anyway? Was it to give
you birds the legal right to rape every boy on the street?"
I took a new room, on Oak Street near the beach, and since I had no more
job, took life easy now recovering from the mental shock of having been in the
clutches of such Unholy Inquisition.
The lawyer advised me he could get my post office job back. But I had no
more money for fees and took no action. After a few weeks a letter from
Washington arrived advising me that I had been officially dismissed from the
Post Office Department for "conduct unbecoming a postal worker."
That definitely meant the end of the Society for Human Rights.
After this I left Chicago for New York. I visited an old friend who had
been with me on the newspaper in Coblenz. He told me that his office badly
needed a good proofreader. My friend introduced me to the Colonel in charge
and showed him my excellent recommendations. This former Major General of
World War I told me he would be glad to have me in his outfit. I reenlisted in
the Army and served 17 years in this office. In 1944 I was recalled to
military service and received my honorable retirement in 1945.
Times have changed. Other homophiles are now carrying on the work I
attempted and they are luckier than I was. Now, in 1962, there are several
organizations working for the rights of homophiles all over the world. And I,
of course, have contributed to their work ever since.
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