Allan Berube; gay historian chronicled roles in WWII

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Elaine Woo
Los Angeles Times / December 17, 2007

Allan Berube, a pioneering gay historian who chronicled the contributions and tribulations of gays and lesbians in the US military during World War II, died Tuesday at a hospital near his home in Liberty, N.Y. He was 61.

The cause was complications from stomach ulcers, according to friend and fellow historian Jonathan Ned Katz.

Mr. Berube wrote "Coming Out Under Fire," a 1990 book that offered the first comprehensive examination of the roles gays played in the nation's armed forces. Ten years in the making, it earned strong reviews, led to a Peabody Award-winning documentary, and brought a prestigious MacArthur genius grant to the author, a college dropout and self-described community historian.

"Allan took great pride in his role as a community historian," said John D'Emilio, a history professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago who knew Mr. Berube almost 30 years. "He was tickled at the idea that as a working-class kid who dropped out of college he could do history that was deep, important, respected, and excited people. He just had a passion about these lives. He was really interested in people who were genuinely lost to history."

"Coming Out Under Fire" told tales of individual valor, tragedy, and discrimination, but also painted a picture of an unintended but powerful outcome of the war. World War II brought together hundreds of thousands of gays and lesbians in a same-sex environment - military bases and fighting units - an experience that bolstered their gender identity and laid the groundwork for the gay rights movement that emerged a few decades later.

"It was a turning point for many homosexuals," Mr. Berube told The San Diego Union-Tribune in 1985. "It accelerated the process of finding other people like themselves."

Mr. Berube was born in Springfield, Mass., but grew up in a trailer park in Bayonne, N.J. He later moved to Munson, Mass., and attended a Massachusetts prep school on a scholarship and earned money by washing the dishes of his classmates.

During the 1960s he was an activist against the Vietnam War. In spring 1968, a turbulent year of street violence and assassinations, his roommate at the University of Chicago was murdered, a tragedy so dispiriting that Berube dropped out of school just before graduation.

The following year he came out as a homosexual and joined a gay liberation collective in Boston. He later moved to San Francisco, where he lived at a gay commune.

After reading Katz's 1976 book "Gay American History," he was inspired to work in the same field. In 1978, he helped found the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay History Project.

"On his own he began researching San Francisco history by just reading through 19th-century newspapers on microfilm," D'Emilio said. "One of the things he discovered, much to his surprise, was all these recurring stories about men who were discovered to be women," who today would be described as transgender people.

Mr. Berube compiled his research in a slide show called "Lesbian Masquerade, Women Who Passed as Men in Early San Francisco."

At its premiere at the San Francisco Women's Building in 1979, a standing-room-only crowd cried, cheered and gave him a standing ovation.

He took the show on the road and, as historian Henry L. Minton noted a few years later in an article for the journal Gay and Lesbian Studies, "Soon grass-roots historians and history projects throughout the country were developing slide documentaries on a variety of subjects."

Mr. Berube's growing reputation as a researcher led him to a treasure trove of historical material.

A neighbor's friend had found hundreds of World War II-era letters and photographs in a dumpster. When he noticed that they included correspondence by gay soldiers, he took them home and stored them in his closet for years. In 1979 he gave them to Mr. Berube after learning of his passion for gay history.

Mr. Berube knew that he had stumbled upon a story that needed to be told.

He began to share it with others in another slide show, which he called "Marching to a Different Drummer."

Over the next decade he presented the show more than 100 times at community centers, gay bars, and church basements across the United States and Canada.

About 10 years ago Mr. Berube moved to Liberty, a small town in the Catskills where he owned a bed and breakfast inn and sold mid-century collectibles with his partner, John Nelson. He also was a village trustee who spearheaded efforts to preserve Liberty's historic character.

He leaves Nelson, his mother, and three sisters.

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