The Daily Agenda for Monday, December 10

Jim Burroway

December 10th, 2012

Charter for the Society for Human Rights, 1924.

TODAY IN HISTORY:
First American Gay Rights Group Founded: 1924. Pro-gay activism in the U.S goes back a very long way, far longer than most realize. Henry Gerber, a Bavarian immigrant to Chicago, served in the U.S. Army’s occupation of Germany following World War I, where he came in contact with the growing German gay rights movement. He read up on German homophile magazines and came in contact with Magnus Hirschfeld’s Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, the first organization in the world working to advance gay rights. When Gerber returned to the U.S. he founded the Society for Human Rights (SHR) in 1924. With an African-American clergyman named John T. Graves as president, SHR is believed to be America’s first gay rights organization. Gerber also founded Friendship and Freedom, the first known American gay publication.

When the state of Illinois granted a charter on December 10, 1924, the Society became the first documented gay organization in America. To gain the charter, they deliberately kept the Society’s mission vague, omitting any mention of homosexuality in their application. Still, they were surprised that no one from the state investigated before issuing the charter. According to the charter, the Society’s objective was:

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.

Henry Gerber

Gerber had a great deal of difficulty getting SHR off the ground. The Rev. John T. Graves, and African-American preacher, was the only clergyman willing to join, and he signed on as president. Gerber, who was the group’s secretary, tried to interest physicians, sex educators, and sexual freedom advocates. “The most difficult task was to get men of good reputation to back up the Society,” he later recalled, but “they usually refused to endanger their reputations .. The only support I got was from poor people (who) were illiterate and penniless.” One of his problems, he discovered, was that “most people only join clubs which already have members.” Fewer still were willing to receive the SHR’s newsletter, Freedom and Friendship, which only lasted for two issues. Gerber ended up bearing most of the work and all of the costs for SHR. In 1962, he reflected on those difficulties:

I realized that homosexuals themselves needed nearly as much attention as the laws pertaining to their acts… 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.

With those difficulties, it isn’t any wonder that SHR didn’t last very long. But the final nail in the group’s coffin was hammered when the wife of the group’s vice president denounced Gerber and his associates to police as “degenerates.” In July, 1925, police arrested Gerber, Graves and two others while the Chicago Examiner reported the story under the headline, “Strange Sex Cult Exposed.” Gerber was tried three times, but the charges were eventually dismissed because he was arrested without a warrant. He was nevertheless ruined, jobless and drained of his life savings, and SHR was no more. Gerber continued writing about gay rights, sometimes under his own name and sometimes under a pseudonym. In 1962, he wrote a detailed history of SHR for ONE Magazine (major portions of that account can be found here.) He died on New Year’s Eve in 1972 at the age of 80, having lived long enough to see gay rights advocacy take on a new vibrancy in the 1950s and 1960s, culminating in an explosion of advocacy and pride after the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969.

[Source: Jim Kepner and Stephen O. Murray. “Henry Gerber (1895-1972): Grandfather of the American Gay Movement.” in Vern L. Bulllough’s (ed.) Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context (Binghamton, NY: Harrington Park Press, 2002): 24-34.]

AIDS Transmission Linked to Blood: 1982. Ever since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first began to track a new disease that would be known as AIDS in the summer of 1981 (See June 5), doctors and epidemiologists were scrambling to try to figure out how this disease was transmitted. Some believed it was the result of heavy drug use, some believed that it was somehow blood-borne, and some just thought it was some sort of natural breakdown of the immune system among “promiscuous homosexuals” who had too many sexually transmitted diseases over their lifetime. That last explanation didn’t do a very good job at explaining why AIDS was showing up among Haitians and hemophiliacs, but when you have homosexuals available for an ready target, it’s easy to ignore the pieces that don’t entirely fit the theory.

The CDC was finally able to shed some light on the controversy in the December 10, 1982 edition of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. That week’s MMWR carried a report of a 20-month old infant in San Francisco who developed all of the hallmark opportunistic infections associated with AIDS. The infant was delivered by C-section in March 3, 1981, and was given several blood transfusions over a four-day period, followed by more transfusions and other blood products during the one-month hospitalization that followed. Six months later, he began developing infections that continued through the next year. MMWR reported, “The parents and brother of the infant are in good health. The parents are heterosexual non-Haitians and do not have a history of intravenous drug abuse. The infant had no known personal contact with an AIDS patient.” But further investigation revealed that one of the nineteen donors who gave blood that was given to the infant during that first month was found to have AIDS:

The donor, a 48-year-old white male resident of San Francisco, was in apparently good health when he donated blood on March 10, 1981. Platelets derived from this blood were given to the infant on March 11. Eight months later, the donor complained of fatigue and decreased appetite. On examination, he had right axillary lymphadenopathy, and cotton-wool spots were seen in the retina of the left eye. During the next month, December 1981, he developed fever and severe tachypnea and was hospitalized with biopsy-proven Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. … He died in August 1982.”

The CDC concluded:

The etiology of AIDS remains unknown, but its reported occurrence among homosexual men, intravenous drug abusers, and persons with hemophilia A suggests it may be caused by an infectious agent transmitted sexually or through exposure to blood or blood products. If the infant’s illness described in this report is AIDS, its occurrence following receipt of blood products from a known AIDS case adds support to the infectious-agent hypothesis.

…This report and continuing reports of AIDS among persons with hemophilia A raise serious questions about the possible transmission of AIDS through blood and blood products. The Assistant Secretary for Health is convening an advisory committee to address these questions.

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