Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Historian Allan Berube dies


Historian Allan Berube, left, Navy veteran Burt Gerrits, and director Arthur Dong on March 10, 1994 at the premiere of Coming Out Under Fire at the Castro Theatre. Photo: Rick Gerharter
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Noted gay community historian Allan Berube died unexpectedly Tuesday, December 11, due to complications related to stomach ulcers. He was 61.

Mr. Berube, who lived in the Bay Area for many years before moving to New York, is best known for his 1990 book, Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II.

"Allan really was a genius and a visionary intellectual and activist," said history and anthropology scholar Gayle Rubin. "His passing is an immense loss to me, to queer scholarship, and to the GLBTQ community."

Mr. Berube was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, on December 3, 1946. He grew up in a working class household, and lived for a time in a trailer park in Bayonne, New Jersey. The family later moved to Massachusetts, where he went to prep school on a scholarship.

Mr. Berube attended the University of Chicago, but dropped out before graduation and moved to Boston in the late 1960s, working as an anti-war organizer with the American Friends Service Committee. After coming out in 1969, he got involved with the gay liberation movement, and before long moved to San Francisco and joined a commune of gay craftspeople.

In 1978, Mr. Berube helped start the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian History Project, one of the first history study groups to emerge out of the gay liberation movement. He was a founding member when the project evolved into the Gay and Lesbian (now GLBT) Historical Society in 1985.

Mr. Berube's World War II research was inspired by a cache of letters between gay servicemen that a friend of his neighbor had salvaged from the trash. Over the course of several years, he conducted interviews with dozens of military men and women. Though homosexuals at the time were officially barred, the military offered many young men and women a ticket out of their hometowns and, Mr. Berube argued, laid the groundwork for the gay rights movement.

Coming Out Under Fire won a Lambda Literary Award and was adapted into an award-winning documentary by Arthur Dong. Mr. Berube's research has often been cited in congressional debates about the military's gay ban.

"Berube's history of lesbian and gay troops during World War II is considered one of the definitive works on gays in the military," Steve Ralls of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network wrote on the organization's Web site. "He will be greatly missed, but his contribution to our movement and community will always persevere."

The historical society holds Mr. Berube's World War II research materials, and several key items are on display in the current "Out Ranks" exhibit, running through June.

Mr. Berube is remembered for his high-quality research as an independent scholar outside the realm of academia. Without university support, he worked for years at low- and mid-wage jobs – including ticket-taker at the Castro Theatre – in order to devote himself to community history. In 1996, he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant," which gave him a measure of financial stability.

"He didn't even finish his bachelor's degree in terms of formal schooling, yet he produced one of the most influential books of gay and lesbian history and kicked off serious study in that domain," said Gerard Koskovich, a founding member and former board member of the historical society.

"Allan's scholarly work was simply foundational, not only for contemporary GLBT history, but also for GLBTQ studies more generally," added Rubin.

Though best known for his work on gays in the military, Mr. Berube's earlier research focused on "passing" women (those who dressed and lived as men) and the history of gay and lesbian bars. He traveled widely, presenting talks and slide shows about his work, and in the early 1990s was a lecturer at Stanford University and the University of California at Santa Cruz.

In addition to his book, Mr. Berube wrote for several LGBT and progressive publications, using his research to support his activism. During the controversy over closing the city's bathhouses in the early years of the AIDS epidemic, he wrote a still-definitive essay on the history and social function of gay baths, which was republished in the 1996 anthology Policing Public Sex, as similar issues again came to the fore.

At the time of his death, Mr. Berube was working on a history of queer men in the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union in the 1930s and 1940s.

Robert Haaland, a political organizer for SEIU Local 1021, recalled that Mr. Berube presented a slide show about this work and co-led a workshop on union history at the 1996 Pride At Work convention, and marched with the group in the Pride parade.

"We will miss him deeply, and we will honor his contributions as we mourn and organize," said Haaland.

Mr. Berube moved to New York City in the late 1990s, and from there to the Catskills resort town of Liberty, where he and his partner, John Nelson, owned a bed and breakfast and ran an antiques shop. Mr. Berube was twice elected as a village trustee, and was active in the effort to preserve the town's historic character.

"All of his work was characterized by a passion for detail, an unerring sense of significance, and the vast compassion and generosity of spirit that characterized his life as well as his writing," said Rubin.

Mr. Berube is survived by Nelson, his mother, and three sisters.

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