‘My Desire for History: Essays in Gay, Community, & Labor History’ by Allan Bérubé

In December 2010, when President Barack Obama signed the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, it signaled not only an end to a pernicious, homophobic policy that at its core functioned to bar homosexuals from serving in the military, but it also provided a fitting final chapter for much of historian Allan Bérubé’s work. Bérubé, who at the age of 61 died unexpectedly of ruptured stomach ulcers in 2007, was renowned as a pioneer in the field of gay history, but he received nearly iconic status in 1990 with the publication of his pathbreaking Lambda Literary Award-winning work Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II.

My Desire for History (University of North Carolina Press) is an expansive and impressive collection of essays that celebrates Bérubé’s long and distinguished legacy by not only including significant (and memorable) excerpts from Coming Out Under Fire, but also placing them within the larger confines of Bérubé’s ambitious chronicling of gay history and gay community formation. According to Bérubé’s longtime friend and colleague John D’Emilio who, along with Estelle B. Freedman, edited this collection, Allan was first and foremost a community historian who “believed passionately in the power of history to change the way individuals and even whole groups of people understood the world and their place in it.” What makes his passion for history even more compelling is that, as D’Emilio and Freedman point out, Bérubé’s historical acumen was essentially self-taught. Bérubé had dropped out of the University of Chicago in 1968, just weeks before he would have graduated, and lived a migratory life, landing in places such as Boston and Montpelier, Vermont, before finally resettling in San Francisco in 1973. Because of San Francisco’s long history of tolerance— and concurrent history of resistance to oppression—Bérubé’s move to San Francisco helped foment his identity as a gay community historian. It was there that Bérubé began visiting libraries, contacting other historians (most notably Jonathan Ned Katz, whose seminal Gay American History proved indispensible), and honing his research skills. As John D’Emilio observes, “Bérubé devoted much of the next three decades of his life to uncovering lesbian and gay history. The work brought him a delight and pleasure that anyone passionately committed to research will understand.”

Bérubé’s delight and pleasure is evident throughout the essays collected in My Desire for History, many of which center on giving a reflexive historical sense to contemporary events. For instance, Bérubé crafted a historical response to the 1980 CBS news special “Gay Power, Gay Politics” that both raised fears about homosexuals dominating San Francisco politics and turning San Francisco into an unbridled sexual playground. In “Beyond the Specter of San Francisco,” he pointed out that these same fears were used to devastating effect when, from 1954 to 1965, city and county officials led a continual campaign against San Francisco’s gay population, its bars, and its meeting places. However, the years of repression catalyzed a determined counter-resistance made up of multiple gay and lesbian organizations that slowly won over police forces and city officials. Bérubé’s lesson in this essay and, in fact, much of his military history work, was that repression often leads people to discover their greatest strengths that will, in turn, lead to increased resistance, better organization, and eventual change.

From a historical standpoint, many of Bérubé’s essays are highly instructive and provide critical insights in to persons, organizations, and events that might otherwise be overlooked, ignored, forgotten, or lost completely. Arguably, though, his most intriguing work appears when he engages in what I like to call “profound introspection.” D’Emilio and Freedman have sagely devoted an entire section of the collection to these decidedly personal essays, which revolve primarily around Bérubé’s explorations of intersecting identities (in his case, gay and working-class). Two essays in particular, “Intellectual Desire” (1996) and “Sunset Trailer Park” (1997; co-authored with his mother Florence), are arguably some of the collection’s strongest and most poignant pieces, more because they provide Bérubé an opportunity to not only tackle thorny issues of American social class distinctions, but also to make them relatable to a broad selection of readers. In these two essays, Bérubé details his experience being raised in a working-class (or what he ruefully calls “white trash”) household, his “class panic” anxiety over being given a scholarship to a prestigious prep school yet never being able to “pass” among his privileged “betters,” and his continual struggle to find acceptance (from others and from himself) as a “white gay man with little money and no college degree.” What makes these pieces so interesting is that despite his notable accomplishments (the scholarships, the prep school and University of Chicago education, the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship awarded in 1996), Bérubé was seemingly unable to completely untether himself from what he believed was his perceptible “white trash” upbringing.

While Bérubé’s class-based work is certainly thought-provoking and enlightening (especially given his astounding success as a non-college-degreed historian working in the notoriously privileged sphere of academe), it nevertheless falters when he attempts to yoke race with gay and working-class identity politics and history. I’m thinking here about the essay “How Gay Stays White and What Kind of White It Stays,” in which Bérubé problematically suggests that the word “gay” has come to be definitionally-equated with “white, male, and well-to-do.” As such, he argues, “gay” functions as an exclusionary identity that specifically discounts or omits women, persons of color, or lower/working-class individuals from its purview. I appreciate Bérubé’s well-intentioned concern about unequal power relations that exist in the vast majority of “gay” organizations, institutions, and communities, but I am nevertheless troubled by his overarching assertion that whiteness not only somehow mitigates being gay (in the eyes of the larger, heteronormative society) but also that being white and gay allots a certain privilege whereby they can more easily be heard and listened to than, say, lesbians, persons of color, transgendered individuals, and other “marginalized” identities. This reasoning is at best reductive and at worst potentially insulting to the wide diversity of queer activists who have fought—and continue to fight—for respect, recognition, and rights.

Fortunately for this collection, missteps such as those seen in “How Gay Stays White” are few and far between, and the editors choose to effectively segue Bérubé’s “race work” in to excerpts from his unfinished chronicling of the multiracial, multiethnic, queer-friendly, and politically radical Marine Cooks and Stewards Union, which was in existence from the 1930s to the 1950s. According to Bérubé, the MCSU earned a reputation as “one of the most democratic, racially integrated, and pro-gay unions in the United States,” and one that not only won wage increases and improved working conditions for its members, but it also aggressively fought for racial and gender equality in its membership.The story of the MCSU is made even more compelling because of the way it was systematically destroyed due to a concerted anti-communist crackdown implemented by the Coast Guard, the FBI, Congress (specifically, Senator Joe McCarthy) and, ironically, the AFL-CIO. Although Bérubé died before completing the MCSU project, the extant essays illustrate a return of sorts for him to his true passion: history. After all, throughout his lifetime Bérubé remained committed to preserving stories and providing deep context for future generations of historians and readers regardless of sexual orientation, race, or gender. Despite its minimal flaws, My Desire for History is an important work, and is a fitting tribute to a phenomenal and exemplary gay historian.

My Desire for History: Essays in Gay, Community, and Labor History
by Allan Bérubé.
edited with an introduction by John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman
University of North Carolina Press
Paperback, 9780807871959, 344 pp.
June 2011