By Wayne Hoffman
Gay historian Allan Berube
Gay historian Allan Berube, award-winning author of Coming Out Under Fire, died on Dec 11. He was 61.
His death was due to sudden complications following the discovery of two stomach ulcers, according to his close friend Jonathan Ned Katz, a fellow gay historian.
Berube was, for decades, an independent historian and community activist. He first came to progressive political activism in opposition to the Vietnam war, working with the American Friends Service Committee in Boston in the late 1960s, after dropping out of the University of Chicago. After coming out in 1969, he joined a “gay liberation collective household,” and later moved to San Francisco to join a gay commune for craftspeople. He remained in San Francisco for many years, and was one of the founders of the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay History Project in 1978. His slide shows about women who dressed and passed as men — and married other women — were welcomed by enthusiastic audiences around the country.
Berube is best remembered for his groundbreaking work of gay history, published in 1990: Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II. The Lambda Literary Award-winning book, which was later adapted by Arthur Dong into a Peabody Award-winning documentary, was often cited in Senate hearings on the military’s anti-gay policies in 1993.
Martin Duberman, distinguished professor of history emeritus at the City University of New York, called Berube’s book “superb … not only in terms of his prose style, which was absolutely lucid and even elegant, but also in terms of the very fine-spun analysis. Allan was not one to create shallow generalizations about either a given individual or a series of events. He was utterly meticulous and utterly careful. No one will ever, I think, have to redo the book on World War II, and you can almost never say that about a historian or a given piece of historical research.”
In 1996, Berube received a “genius grant” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for his work.
For the past decade, while living in New York City and the Catskills, Berube had been working on a history of queer working-class men in the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union in the 1930s and ’40s, a project for which he received a Rockefeller Residency Fellowship in the Humanities from the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at CUNY.
Berube traveled the country presenting slide shows about his current research, and lectured on gay and lesbian history at Stanford University and the University of California, Santa Cruz. He wrote stories for numerous publications, including Mother Jones, Gay Community News, The Advocate, The Washington Blade, Out/Look, and the Body Politic. He also published articles in several anthologies, including White Trash (which included a rare personal essay in which he recounted his childhood in a trailer park in Bayonne, N.J.) and Policing Public Sex, in which he detailed the history of gay bathhouses.
“Allan took great pride in his role as a community historian,” said John D’Emilio, professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of several books on gay history. “He loved the excitement that his talks and slide shows generated in an audience, and he loved that he, a college dropout, had written a book that made a difference in the world. He was an inspiration to everyone who knew him, as sweet and kind and genuinely moral a human being as anyone could hope to meet.”
For the past several years, Berube lived in Liberty, N.Y., in the Catskills. There, he owned a bed & breakfast, and operated Intelligent Design, a store selling mid-century modern collectibles. Berube’s partner, John Nelson, said, “Allan just loved it when people walked into the Liberty store, looked around, and were happy.”
Berube was twice elected a trustee of the village of Liberty.
“Allan was extremely proud of helping to preserve Liberty’s historic character,” said Katz. “Allan initiated the successful nomination of Liberty’s whole Main Street as a historic district, saved from demolition a major building with a classic 1950s facade, and bought and renovated the Shelburne Playhouse, one of the last remaining performance halls that were once part of the area’s many hotels.”
In addition to Nelson, Berube is also survived by his mother and three sisters.