By Jason A. Michael and Tim Retzloff
Longtime community activist, Triangle Foundation co-founder and Lifetime Achievement Award winner Dr. Henry D. Messer died at 5 a.m. Feb. 18 following a battle with cancer. He was 86.
Born in Madison, Fla. In 1927, Messer was the only child of Henry and Sarah Messer. His father owned a Chevrolet dealership, his mother was a homemaker.
He moved to Durham, N.C. to study premed at Duke University and went on to the Duke University School of Medicine. During the Korean conflict, Messer entered the Air Force as a first lieutenant and began his specialization in neurosurgery under orders from his commanding officer at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., where he was stationed throughout the war.
It was there that he met his partner of 62 years, Carl House. The two met after a night out with a group of gay servicemen. But shortly thereafter, an officer with whom Messer had been involved turned him in for being gay. Air Force investigators went through Messer’s phonebook and the film on his camera searching for evidence. They even went so far as to travel to his hometown in Florida asking acquaintances there whether he had shown signs of being gay growing up. Messer resigned his commission after a three-month investigation.
In 1953, Messer and House moved to New York, where Messer completed his residency in neurosurgery at St. Vincent’s Hospital. The couple bought a home in Greenwich Village and also several rental properties. They would live there for 14 years.
Messer began his gay rights activism early. He was a member of the Mattachine Society of New York, one of the earliest advocacy groups in the contemporary gay rights movement. Among his accomplishments there, he helped craft the New York City human rights ordinance.
In 1974 Messer authored a chapter entitled “The Homosexual as Physician” for Human Sexuality: A Health Practitioner’s Text, the first account of gay doctors to be included in a medical textbook.
Two years later he listed the chapter on his curriculum vitae when he applied to join the staff of Wayne County General Hospital in Westland, Mich., then a teaching site for the University of Michigan Medical School, so he was hired as an out gay man, perhaps one of the first in his profession.
When he and House arrived in Michigan, they learned about a new group called the Association of Suburban People, which became their entree into gay life in metropolitan Detroit.
“The president at that time was a tall, good-looking hunk named Wes Rogalski and he kind of took us under his wing and showed us around and introduced us around, because most of the people knew each other,” Messer recalled in a 2009 oral history interview. “We were the new faces in town. And so we started to know people and became part of the organization.”
While working with ASP, Messer suggested having attendees sign in. These early sign-in sheets formed the basis of a database that grew to 60,000 names and addresses, which Messer cultivated over the years as he became involved in the Michigan Organization for Human Rights, the Triangle Foundation, and Equality Michigan.
Messer became a key public face for ASP. He appeared with Rogalski on the WDET radio program “Gayly Speaking” in 1977, helped organize the first Developing a Positive Gay-Lesbian Identity conference in 1980, and was profiled in Metra magazine in 1982.
He felt it was important to use his status as a doctor and faculty member to be as out as possible to advance the gay cause. “I’m very secure in my position,” he told Metra. “As a result, I’m about as open as one can be. I speak freely about my lifestyle and I know that many gay people have a problem being open and speaking about gay issues with public officials. I don’t.”
As a board member for ASP and later for MOHR, Messer became a strong proponent of lobbying politicians directly and holding them accountable to their LGBT constituents, which in the late 1970s and early 1980s was often tough going. “It was very hard to get support in those days,” Messer recalled in 2009. “I met with John Dingle a couple of times and he was not about to support anything gay in those days. Of course now he’s gung ho gay, but he wasn’t then.”
In January 1985, an undercover police officer arrested Messer at the Irving Art Theater for alleged indecent behavior. He was convicted, fined, and placed on one year’s probation. Messer used the MOHR newsletter to broadcast his story of entrapment to the membership. As a result of his conviction, New York State revoked his medical license. Although his Michigan license was never in jeopardy, Messer decided to retire at age 60.
In 1991, at age 63, he co-founded the Triangle Foundation.
“Pioneer is an often overused term but in this instance he was a true pioneer,” said Jeff Montgomery, Triangle’s longtime executive director. “He took many, many risks, from the time he was in his early 20s, and never looked back in terms of fighting for equality and respect and legal rights. We all owe him such a huge debt.”
A member of Triangle’s board of directors for many years, Messer was also an active volunteer for the group. He performed data entry at Triangle’s office in Northwest Detroit and often made lunch for the office staff. He received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the annual Pride banquet on June 15th, 1995. Thirteen days later, on June 28th, he was shot and wounded while working in the Triangle office. The act of anti-gay violence received national attention.
Sean Kosofsky, who worked with Triangle for a dozen years before relocating to North Carolina, traveled home to be near Messer in the end.
“I think that it is important when we look around and see all the victories that we are having in our movement now and just remember the incredible, heroic contributions and sacrifices of early leaders like Henry,” Kosofsky said. “He has given so much to the world and the Michigan LGBT rights movement.”
On the occasion of his 50th anniversary with House in 2002, Messer received a Congressional recognition when U.S. Rep David Bonior (D-MI) stood and acknowledged the couple’s anniversary and their many years of activism on the House floor. The couple also received a controversial tribute from Michigan Governor John Engler. The tribute, requested by State Rep. Pan Godchaux (R-Birmingham), was signed on a machine and Engler’s office said later he was unaware he was paying tribute to a gay partnership and likely wouldn’t have signed the tribute had he known.
Ten years later, in 2012, a diamond anniversary event, celebrating the couple’s 60th anniversary and benefiting Equality Michigan, took place at the Regency Manor & Banquet Center in Southfield. In attendance and making remarks was Congressman Hansen Clarke (D-MI).
Now that he’s gone, Montgomery said it’s important we remember Messer as we continue with the work of fighting for LGBT equality.
“He was very committed to bringing along new activists, new leaders, sharing his incredible knowledge, trying to help teach his kind of instinct, and many, many people benefitted from his approach,” said Montgomery. “It can’t be overstressed how much of a difference he’s made. It’s an unfathomable loss and I think we’re all called on now to continue working as hard as he has, keeping in mind the kind of guidance he gave to so many of us. This is a time to rededicate ourselves to the work that still needs to be done. That’s the most fitting memorial to Henry Messer.”
Kosofky said that Messer’s impact would undoubtedly be lasting.
“He was a mentor and hero to many of us,” he said. “I’m just honored to have been able to be with Henry in his final days. Our entire movement is owed to people like him.”