Old Town site of nation’s first gay rights group designated national landmark

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An Old Town home that served as the headquarters for the nation’s first known gay-rights organization was named a National Historic Landmark on Friday.

The Society for Human Rights, a gay-rights group founded by WWI veteran Henry Gerber, began at the home located at 1701 N. Crilly Court in 1924. It is the second LGBT historical site to receive the honor from the National Park Service, with the first being the Stonewall Inn in New York City.

Though police shut down the group just a few months later, local LGBT historians say it provided the impetus for national gay-rights groups like the Mattachine Society.

The group acted as a support system for local gay men, said Tracy Baim, a historian and publisher of the Windy City Times, a local LGBT newspaper.

The Society for Human Rights met privately at Gerber’s home, but they filed paperwork with the state as part of their incorporation, Baim said.

That public filing was enough to be groundbreaking, as it was the first time in the U.S. a group had publicly identified itself as LGBT, she added.

Just a few months later, police raided Gerber’s home and took all of the group’s materials. Gerber lost his job as a postal worker and left Chicago, historians say.

“Even though it was short-lived, people around the country knew about it,” Baim said.

The Henry Gerber Home, which is currently a private residence, will be designated a landmark with a plaque, according to a spokesperson for the National Park Service. The owners of the home will still be able to make changes to it, though they could lose the honor if the changes are too drastic.

The home has been a city landmark since June 2001, and the announcement comes a day before local Pride celebrations get underway.

Though it is named for Henry Gerber, the Gerber/Hart Library and Archives in Rogers Park has few documents from his group in its collection of historical books and periodicals on gay history.

“There wasn’t really anything saved,” said Carrie Barnett, president of the library’s board.

“It’s so significant that he had the courage to do something in a time when the words were never spoken,” Barnett said.

“His need to connect with other people, his willingness to risk his life in order to make the society . . . it’s just a beacon and beginning of what has brought us to this point here.”

Chicago often gets overlooked in gay history, Baim said.

“It’s a long time coming,” she said of the landmark designation. “It cements Chicago’s place in the national movement,” she said.

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