overview

Early gay rights activist Henry Gerber lived on Governors Island from the late 1920s to 1945 as a member of the United States Army.

In 1924, Gerber founded the Society for Human Rights, the first American LGBT rights organization, while living in Chicago.

Header Photo
Credit: Amanda Davis/NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, 2016.

History

The Society for Human Rights, founded in 1924 by the Bavarian-born Henry Gerber (né Josef Henry Dittmar; 1892-1972) while living in Chicago, was the first American LGBT rights organization. Gerber had been an American soldier occupying Germany from 1920 to 1923 following World War I, and had come in contact with the “homophile” rights movement there.

Within a year of its creation, the Society for Human Rights disbanded due to Gerber’s arrest after publication of the Society’s second newsletter, and although he was acquitted, he lost his post office job. Gerber moved to New York several years later, re-enlisted in the Army, and was posted at Fort Jay on Governors Island, where he continued to write essays on homosexuality for a number of publications. While here, he was subject to harassment, including beatings and blackmail, because he was gay. He spent several weeks held in the guardhouse at Castle Williams in 1942, even though no evidence of illegal behavior was found.

Gerber was honorably discharged in 1945, and he continued the fight for gay rights for the rest of his life.

Building Information

  • Architect or Builder: Unknown (Fort Jay); Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Williams (Castle Williams)
  • Year Built: 1796 (Fort Jay); 1807-11 (Castle Williams)

Sources

  1. Christopher D. Brazee, Gale Harris, and Jay Shockley, “150 Years of LGBT History,” New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (June 2014).

  2. Daniel Hurewitz, Stepping Out: Nine Walks Through New York City’s Gay and Lesbian Past (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1997).

  3. St. Sukie de la Croix, “Henry Gerber: Ahead of His Time,” The Gay History Project, bit.ly/2g2SNj6.

  4. “Henry Gerber,” National Park Service, bit.ly/2fX3zIw.

Curated Themes

22 Sites

Homophobia & Transphobia

13 Sites

Activism Before Stonewall

21 Sites

City of Immigrants