Allan Bérubé, 1946-2007

Against the Current, No. 135, July/August 2008

Gary Kinsman

AN INSPIRING AND broad-ranging queer historian, Allan Bérubé died at the age of 61 on December 11, 2007. He left us with major contributions of exciting historical work, but also important unfinished work that needs to be continued.

Bérubé’s allegiance was not to the academy but to the movement and community. Bérubé’s histories, as he put it, were about the lives of ordinary lesbians and gay men. He was not formally trained as a historian. Instead his remarkable skills grew out of his decade long involvement in the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay History Project and the broader grassroots queer history movement based on developing ways to return our history to our communities.

Some of his earliest work with the History Project was on women who cross-dressed and passed as men. Bérubé’s historical work, while centering on gay and queer experiences, always examined the ways in which sexuality, class, race and gender relations are made in and through each other. Sexuality, for him, was thought and practiced in relation to class, race and gender.

Marching To A Different Drummer

I first met Allan Bérubé when he was doing his wonderful slide show on U.S. gay and lesbian experience in World War II, called “Marching to A Different Drummer,” at the Sex and the State lesbian and gay history conference in Toronto in 1985. This slide show was a groundbreaking investigation of how the new same-gender segregated contexts that men and women were thrown into in the military and war industry during the war mobilizations allowed for many “coming out” experiences.

At the same time the purging of queers from the U.S. military with the label of “homosexual” expelled people from “straight” society, creating the basis for groups of people to begin to create openly gay and lesbian spaces in some of the larger U.S. cities in the postwar years.

Bérubé’s research was based on the discovery of people’s letters and diaries, interviews with gay and lesbian veterans, and critical examination of declassified government documents. He had a delightful ability to bring to life the stories of the people he talked to through his animated readings of their words, and the combination of this with photos and archival materials in his slide show. At the time his work helped to inspire my involvement in queer historical work in the Canadian context, including looking into what happened to queers in Canada during World War II.

Bérubé continued his detailed research and produced his widely known award winning book Coming Out Under Fire, The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two in 1990. This is the decisive history of queers in the United States during this war, and reoriented historical inquiry on a number of fronts. Crucial to his method in writing the book was the process of taking the slide show on the road, where he learned a great deal from the comments and critiques of his audience members as he was able to engage “in an ongoing public dialogue with the communities whose histories I was documenting and to which I belonged.” (Coming Out Under Fire, x)

As he wrote:

“The massive mobilization for World War II propelled gay men and lesbians into the mainstream of American life. Ironically the screening and discharge polices, together with the drafting of millions of men, weakened the barriers that had kept gay people trapped and hidden at the margins of society. Discovering that they shared a common cause, they were more willing and able to defend themselves, as their ability to work, congregate, and lead sexual lives came under escalating attack in the postwar decade.” (Coming Out Under Fire, 255).

This was followed up with the movie version of Coming Out Under Fire in 1994.

Working-Class Queer Intellectual Desires

I next encountered Allan Bérubé when I heard his amazing keynote address at the La Ville en Rose, Quebec Lesbian and Gay Studies Conference in Montreal in 1992. Here he crossed the different boundaries of his life, trying to bring these fragments together: his white Quebecois historical roots as a Franco-American; his working-class background; his coming out as gay; and his contradictory engagement with middle-class academic and intellectual projects.

In the 1870s and 1880s his ancestors left Quebec because the land they were allowed to own could no longer support their growing families. They found jobs in New England during its industrial boom. His family had to deal with the pressures of assimilation and adopted various survival strategies, which began to collapse by the time he was young.

Bérubé lived much of his working-class life in poverty but was partially able to escape this background by getting into college. However he dropped out of college, a response to a combination of financial, psycho-sexual, and class anxiety. Another intersecting crisis lived in his life was coming to terms with his erotic desires for men. In San Francisco he became part of a developing gay community and engaged with lesbian and gay history.

Following his intellectual desires he stayed largely autonomous from the academic world in order to avoid becoming a middle-class academic separate from working-class life. He also rejected narrow views of the gay community that were:

“(B)uilt partly by white, middle-class-identified, college-educated gay men around a belief that homosexuality could and should stand alone as the organizing principle for our lives and work — as if our homosexualities had not been significantly shaped by our race, gender, and class…. what I experienced most directly as a white gay man with little money and no college degree was how the gay community reproduced class hierarchies. There were many gay restaurants, disco parties, conferences, resorts, and bathhouses I couldn’t afford.”

It is a mistaken idea that gay community or gay activism can stand alone as gay. They are all made possible by past civil rights, ethnic, class, and women’s struggles… The white, male, and middle-class separation of gay from these other struggles and histories is one of the many predictable consequences of a larger process of Americanization that I know too well from my family’s class and ethnic history. (“Intellectual Desire,” 60)

In this talk Bérubé described where he had come to in his intellectual struggles: I do my work now in the borderlands between social classes, between the university and the community, between heterosexual and homosexual, between educated speech and down-to-earth talk, between Franco-American and Quebecois, between my family and the gay community, between the past and the present … These temporarily bridged distances and unexpected combinations have become a workshop in which it seems possible to make the gay, intellectual, working-class, and Franco-American parts of myself reinforce each other rather than split me apart. (“Intellectual Desire,” 62)

No Red-Baiting! No Race-Baiting! No Queer Baiting!

As a result Bérubé focused on doing queer multi-racial working-class histories. The last time I met him we did a participatory workshop together on queer union histories at the first Canadian Labour Congress Pride conference in Ottawa in 1997. At this conference he also presented his powerful slideshow on the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union, which became his major area of research after Coming Out Under Fire.

This slideshow built on what he had learned from doing “Marching to A Different Drummer” but focused more specifically on developing a queer, working-class, anti-racist history in his numerous presentations to union and queer (and sometimes queer union) audiences.

The Marine Cooks and Stewards Union (MCS) represented service workers such as waiters, laundrymen, and messmen who labored in horrible conditions on West Coast passenger liners. It developed into one of the most democratic and diverse unions in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s, with an acceptance of both African American and gay members. The struggles MCS members waged for better working conditions and justice led them to understand that they needed to stand together and to not let themselves be divided along lines of race and sexuality.

Bérubé explored the connections of class, race and sexuality in the life of this union. Former members of MCS told him that gay men made up the majority of the stewards on many passenger lines. Decades before the first U.S. gay rights organizations, the MCS won the first on the job protection for gay workers. There were so many gay men in the union that straight stewards were often also queer-baited and understood how such baiting was a tactic used to divide workers. Gay men were accepted because they were workers just like any other.

Unfortunately, after World War II the combination of shrinking work opportunities and the McCarthyite anti-communist and anti-queer witch-hunts had a devastating impact on the MCS. Under the federal Maritime Security Program developed to keep “Communists and other subversives” off the ships and off the waterfront the Coast Guard began screening seamen believed to be threats to “national security.”

At this time “sex perverts” were also considered threats to “national security.” While many workers resisted this national security campaign they were unable to succeed given the fervent anti-communist mobilizations of the time.

Before it was torn apart the MCS provided an example of a left-wing, democratic, anti-racist and pro-queer union. In an interview Bérubé spoke of why this historical work is so important:

“Telling stories about what happened can really encourage people who feel like the task is too big to accomplish in the present … Especially what was going on in the 30s — talk about hopeless situations — things were already bad and then the Depression hit, but that was one of the most creative times of union organizing. People did try to tackle these issues [race and homosexuality] and didn’t fail, or succeeded for surprising lengths of time. (Davis, “The Marine Cooks and Stewards Union,” New Socialist, 25)

Although Bérubé continued work on this important book project, to be titled Shipping Out, it remained unfinished at the time of his death.”

Bérubé understood the important use of historical work for movement political struggles. In the midst of the campaigns to close down gay bathhouses in the context of the AIDS panic in the mid-1980s he wrote historically based declarations to buttress arguments for keeping the bathhouses open as important community, social and sexual spaces for men who had sex with men. To do this we needed to move beyond liberal notions of the right to privacy:

“The dominant legal defence of gay baths at the time was based on a right-to-privacy argument that attempted to avoid explicit discussions of gay male sexuality and desire. I wanted to construct an alternative defence of gay baths that was based on their long history as sexual institutions, and on the right of gay citizens to use them for associational purposes that were sexual as well as social and political.” (The History of Gay Bathhouses, 187)

Here Bérubé establishes an important queer right to sexual and social space based in the historical creation and defense of these spaces. As the mainstream of the gay movement moved away from defense of the sexual needs and rights of queer people, Bérubé spoke out for the need to re-focus on the sexual politics of queer liberation. He was a consistent sex radical and supporter of pro-sex feminism in viewpoint and action.

When the struggle to end the exclusion of gays and lesbians from the U.S. military heated up, Bérubé wrote a detailed history of the U.S. ban on homosexuals in the military for Senator Edward Kennedy; this report was submitted to the 1993 record of the hearings on homosexuals in the military.

In the last years of his life Bérubé moved to Liberty, New York, where he was very involved in village politics and in preserving the beauty and green character of the area.

Bérubé was a committed queer working-class community-based historian. We need many more such historians who can grapple with the questions that he engaged with. Bérubé’s historical work needs to be continued and extended today. This is history that is useful in our struggles, assisting us in grasping what took place in the past while clarifying how we can resist in our historical present. Doing more grassroots community-based history is the best tribute we can give to Allan Bérubé.


Entry on Allan Bérubé in Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia at

Allan Bérubé, Coming Out Under Fire, The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two, (New York: The Free Press, 1990).

Allan Bérubé, “Intellectual Desire,” in Susan Raffo, ed., Queerly Classed, (Boston: South End Press, 1997), 43-66.

Allan Bérubé, “The History of Gay Bathhouses,” in Dangerous Bedfellows, eds., Policing Public Sex, Queer Politics And the Future of AIDS Activism (Boston: South End Press, 1996), 187-220. Scarlett C. Davis, (“No Race Baiting, Red-Baiting, or Queer Baiting, The Marine Cooks and Stewards Union Knew Differences are Small, Solidarity is Key,” The Dispatcher (February 1997): 6-7. Reprinted in New Socialist, V.3, No.3, June-July 1998, 10, 11 and 25.

ATC 135, July-August 2008

1 comment

  1. It is very important that his final project “Shipping Out” be finished and that the related slide show/talk be re-distributed so folks can see it/learn from it.

    Jesse Lokahi Heiwa
    Working Class Queer People/Queer People of Color Action

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