Allan Berube, a pioneering gay historian who chronicled the contributions and tribulations of gays and lesbians in the U.S. military during World War II, died Tuesday at a hospital near his home in Liberty, N.Y. He was 61.
The cause of death was complications from stomach ulcers, according to friend and fellow historian Jonathan Ned Katz.
Berube wrote "Coming Out Under Fire," a 1990 book that offered what is considered the first comprehensive examination of the roles gays played in the nation's armed forces during the war. The book earned strong reviews, led to a Peabody Award-winning documentary and brought a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship 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 at Chicago who knew Berube for 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 it also painted a larger 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 homosexual identity and laid the groundwork for the gay rights movement that would emerge a few decades later.
"It was a turning point for many homosexuals," Berube told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 1985. "It accelerated the process of finding other people like themselves."
Berube was born Dec. 3, 1946, in Springfield, Mass., and grew up in a trailer park in Bayonne, N.J., later moving back to Massachusetts. He attended a Massachusetts prep school on scholarship and earned money by washing the dishes of his classmates.
During the 1960s he was an activist against the Vietnam War. In the spring of 1968, a turbulent year of street violence and assassinations, his roommate at the University of Chicago was murdered, an event 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," Berube 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.
Berube compiled his research in a slide show called "Lesbian Masquerade: Women Who Passed as Men in Early San Francisco." When the show premiered 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."
Berube's growing reputation as a researcher led him to a treasure trove of historical material.
In one instance, a neighbor's friend had found hundreds of World War II-era letters and photographs in a trash bin. When he noticed that they included correspondence by gay GIs, he took them home and stored them in his closet for years. In 1979, he gave them to Berube after learning of his passion for gay history.
The letters had been written by a group of gay soldiers at an Army base in Missouri who maintained their correspondence after being shipped out to other bases around the country and overseas. They wrote about what their lives were like at their various postings, the gay bars they found, romances they developed and problems they faced as homosexuals in the military.
Berube instantly 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 U.S. and Canada. Each showing would bring out veterans who were not regulars at gay liberation events but were eager to share their experiences.