Queering Public History in a New National Landmark

Saturday, January 3, 2015: 3:30 PM
Midtown Suite (New York Hilton)
Michelle McClellan, University of Michigan
Andrea Rottmann, University of Michigan
This presentation features explanation of and reflection on the process of nominating the Chicago home of Henry Gerber to be a National Historic Landmark (NHL). NHLs are nationally significant historic places designated by the Secretary of the Interior because they possess exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States and achieve status through a complex, multi-step process. As part of a new LGBTQ History Initiative of the National Park Service, a faculty member and graduate student from the University of Michigan have partnered with the NHL program to write the Gerber nomination. 

            Henry Gerber (1892–1972) was a pioneering advocate for homosexual rights in the United States.  While living in Koblenz, Germany, where he was stationed after World War I, Gerber was influenced by medical and political developments there.  Upon return to the U.S., he founded the Society for Human Rights in 1924, modeling it after the German organizations he had encountered. Gerber’s associated newsletter, Friendship and Freedom, was the first documented gay civil-­‐rights publication in the United States. Although the Society for Human Rights was short lived, Gerber is significant for taking these steps during the 1920s, when homosexuals faced severe discrimination and harassment, and decades before wider civil rights campaigns gained momentum in the United States. Gerber thus demonstrates a transnational history of homosexual activism as well, serving as a critical link between early-­‐twentieth century European developments and mid-­‐twentieth century efforts to secure fundamental rights for homosexuals in the U.S. Those writing the nomination face the challenge of integrating historiography with the built environment, confronting issues of preservation and commemoration, and historical interpretation.  Far from an individual and abstract academic exercise, the nomination requires collaboration among students and partnerships with preservation professionals, community historians and journalists, and the current property owners.