Allan Bérubé: A Visionary Historian

Allan Bérubé, award-winning author
of “Coming Out Under Fire,” died on
December 11, 2007.
I first met Allan in the spring
of 1979. In the two preceding
years, in the time he carved out
from the odd jobs that kept him
afloat, he had systematically pursued
leads from Jonathan Ned Katz’s
Gay American History, in the process
amassing his own trove of queer
historical documents. One thick line
of research especially delighted him.
To his surprise, 19th-century San
Francisco newspapers ran extended
stories, amounting at times to almost
mini-biographies, of “women who
passed as men.”
“Lesbian Masquerade,” his slide
talk, premiered that June at the
Women’s Building in San Francisco.
Three decades later, the
event remains indelibly etched in
memory. The large auditorium was
packed solid with an audience that
seemed to cross every line of gender
identity and performance that one
could imagine. The excitement was
palpable, and it grew as Allan moved
us through the lives of Jeanne Bonnet,
Milton/Luisa Matson, and Jack
Garland / Babe Bean. The laughter,
the cheers, the damp eyes, and then
the crowd that pressed in upon Allan
after the presentation was over testified
to the event’s power. This was
no routine history lecture.
“Lesbian Masquerade” made Allan
very visible in San Francisco. A few
months later, through a circuitous
route, he learned of a box of letters
that someone had discovered four
years earlier in the closet of a vacant
apartment on Potrero Hill. The box
contained hundreds of letters written
among a group of gay men who had
met each other in the service during
World War II. Allan was beside
himself. He called me in New
York to report all this (in the
1970s, long-distance calling
was a wild luxury for those of
us struggling to make rent)
and a few days later penned a
multi-paged letter in which he
copied out long passages from
the correspondence.
Those letters changed Allan’s life.
Over the next decade, through Freedom
of Information Act requests, time
in the National Archives and Library
of Congress, reels of microfilm newspapers,
and lots of oral histories, Allan
fleshed out the story that those letters
suggested into a book, Coming Out
Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and
Women in World War II. He took the
historical moment that flag-waving patriots
celebrate as the apex of national
greatness and pushed queers right into
the heart of it. The book chronicles a
story of oppression and resistance, of
lives pulled out of predictable routines
and a world transformed because of
it. As the gays-in-the-military debate
heated up in the 1990s, Allan was
there weighing in. We often laughed
at the irony of a 1960s conscientious
objector being touted as an authority
on military matters.
I told a friend about Allan’s death
and the obituaries that had appeared
in both the New York and Los Angeles
Times. Knowing how historians are expected
to produce book after book after
book, she asked me what made this
author of one book so important. It
was a fair question. A once-imagined
book about 19th and early 20th-century
San Francisco never materialized.
His deep research on the Marine Cooks
and Stewards Union remains largely
unwritten. Coming Out Under Fire is
available only through print-on-demand.
When I think about Allan and what
he gave to me and to so many of us,
it was a vision of history as a worldchanging
Though he had
taught courses at
universities and
moved easily in the
company and the
conferences of academics,
he mostly
worked outside institutional contexts.
Starting with “Lesbian Masquerade,”
moving on to “Marching to a Different
Drummer,” his World War II show,
and ending with his presentations on
the multiracial, queer-inflected, politically
progressive Marine Cooks and
Stewards union, Allan gave hundreds
and hundreds of illustrated talks
around the country. Sometimes they
were on campuses, sometimes in union
halls. Just as often they were in spaces
that struggling grassroots organizations
got hold of for a single night. Many
times they were in living rooms where
a large circle of friends passed the hat
to support this traveling historian.
The stories from the past that he told
brought people out of the closet and
into a public world. His stories propelled
people into varieties of activism.
Allan built community wherever he
In the letter he wrote me just after
he received the box of World War II
correspondence, he said this about
Harold Clark’s decision to keep those
materials for thirty years: “I can’t help
but think that it was all saved with the
hope, an act of faith, that it could all be
put together somehow.” Allan fulfilled
that hope, even as his own work was an
act of faith, too, that a people’s history
could build a different future.
John D’ Emilio, Professor of History and Gender
and Women’s Studies at the University of Illinois
at Chicago
Donations made to CLAGS in memory
of Allan Bérubé’s life and work will go
toward the creation of a scholarship in
LGBTQ studies.