When Allan Bérubé died suddenly in 2007, I had not yet seen one of his famous history slide shows. I had never met the man who so inspired me as a historian. After reading My Desire for History, however, I felt like I had.
In an era when most historians do original research in one or at most two fields, Allan Bérubé did pioneering research in three areas of American history. In the 1970s, Bérubé worked on the history of the gay community in San Francisco when queer history was in its infancy. In the 1980s, he interviewed dozens of gay and lesbian [End Page 506] veterans of World War II and combed through thousands of government documents to write the seminal history of gays in the military. That book, Coming Out Under Fire, would be his magnum opus, helping him to win a prestigious MacArthur "genius" award. For the rest of his life, he worked on queer labor history, a field all but ignored by academic historians then and now.
In My Desire for History, John D'Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, preeminent historians of sexuality, have lovingly edited their friend's published and unpublished work to introduce a new generation of scholars to his brilliant and passionate ideas. After a brief biographical essay, the book is broken into four sections. The community studies in the first section emerge organically from the cultural, sexual, and intellectual ferment of San Francisco in the 1970s. For example, Bérubé wrote about the panic and political backlash to the supposed "homosexual invasion" of San Francisco in the 1950s, which closely mirrored the conservative backlash to the gay liberation in his day. The second section on the history of gays in the military will not surprise readers familiar with Coming Out Under Fire, but there is a nice essay on the Myrtle Beach Bitch—a newsletter published by gay GIs in South Carolina during the war—that explores southern sexuality. The autobiographical third section introduces us to a self-taught, working-class intellectual who wrestled with complex ideas about race, class, gender, sexuality, and politics. It is poignant, personal, and moving. I found the essay on AIDS, which chronicles the death of Bérubé's longtime partner, Brian Keith, particularly powerful. The final section gives readers a glimpse of Bérubé's research on the "multiracial, multiethnic, queer-inflected, and politically radical" Marine Cooks and Stewards Union (p. 294). He asks provocative questions such as: "How do jobs become queer?," "How does queer work fit into society?," and "Can queer work be political?" (pp. 264-67). These questions drove Bérubé's final book project, and unless or until that book is finished by another scholar, we will have to make do with the essays included here. Even in their current form, these essays stand as signposts to the future of labor history.
As with any book published posthumously, this one feels a bit [End Page 507] incomplete. The essays adapted from the acclaimed slide shows that Bérubé produced are powerful, but they often lack citations and, more importantly, images. D'Emilio and Freedman do a great job of chronicling Bérubé's life in the introduction and selecting essays for the book. I was surprised, however, that they did not mention the parallels between Bérubé and another pioneering San Francisco author, Randy Shilts, particularly since the two men came to such different conclusions about many shared subjects. Still, the focus of this book is and should be on Bérubé, a man who blazed intellectual trails that young scholars would do well to follow today.
Steve Estes teaches history at Sonoma State University in Rohnert, California. He is the author of I Am a Man: Race, Manhood, and the Civil Rights Movement (2005) and the editor of Ask & Tell: Gay and Lesbian Veterans Speak Out (2007).