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Allan Bérubé's Award-Winning Research on 'Queer Work'

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This article originally appeared in the October 1996 issue of OUT.

“Hairdressers, interior decorators, figure skaters, Catholic priests,” says Allan Bérubé. “Church organists. Travel agents.” He grins roguishly, eyes crinkling as he ticks off the list. “Waiters and virtually all men other than ministers working in the wedding industry.”

Allan Bérubé is talking about the people who do what he calls “queer work,” the subjects of his research for more than five years, which won him a prestigious $300,000 MacArthur “genius grant” in June. Past winners have included gay dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones and lesbian poet Adrienne Rich but never anyone working in the field of lesbian and gay studies. At 49, an independent labor historian without a university degree of affiliation, Bérubé is being honored for a career of studying gay and lesbian social history and lives on the job.

At the offices of Service Employees International Union Local 250 in Oakland, California, during a recent meeting of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender labor activists, Bérubé is sharing his historical research with an enthusiastic, informal group of blue- and pink-collar workers. A slim, neat man with a salt-and-pepper beard and a black leather jacket, he smiles engagingly at the men and women crowded into a small room. “Costume designers, ballet dancers, personal secretaries, travel agents,” he reflects. “I think I’ve dated most of these men at one time or another. What are some of the stereotypes of queer work you’ve heard of or done?”

Most jobs, explains Bérubé, have historically been divided into men’s or women’s work, pigeonholed and white or “colored” work, even seen at different times as especially well suited for Chinese or Korean or Irish workers. Bérubé talks, similarly, about the “homosexualizing” of jobs such as gym teacher, nun, UPS driver, and carpenter for women, or nurse, figure skater, and fashion designer for men. At its worst, he says this kind of queer work can be a “stigmatized ghetto, a trap—all we’re good for.”

But Bérubé maintains a kind of amused affection for the stereotypes. “Many middle-class gays try to distance themselves from the fag hairdresser or lesbian truck driver,” he says, “but people have always used those jobs to transform a trap into a refuge.” And, argues Bérubé, the stereotypes are an excellent way to understand labor history, and the place of queer lives in that history. “There’s this myth,” he says, “that gays aren’t working-class, and that labor unions aren’t queer. But if you look at the jobs considered to be queer work, you see how decades before the middle-class gay movement, people used their unions to improve their lives as queers.”

Allan Bérubé is an intellectual who has chosen his own path. Growing up working-class in Massachusetts and New Jersey, Bérubé recalls, “I always wanted to figure things out. I loved ideas. So school was going to be the way I escapes. But once I got to college I felt disoriented and torn apart.” Bérubé dropped out of the University of Chicago in the turbulent spring of 1968: “I was taking a multiple-choice test on Swinburne, and the city was under martial law. I just walked out and never went back.” He moved to “a gay hippie commune” in the Haight-Ashbury and followed his own path through queer work as a nurse’s aide, temporary typists, receptionist, and waiter.

His interest in history led Bérubé to co-found the community-based San Francisco Lesbian and Gay History Project, and he continued to dig through old archives, newspaper, files, and records in search of previously undocumented queer lives. After the accidental discovery of a gay service member’s letters in 1979, Bérubé spent years working part-time to support his research as he crisscrossed the country finding and interviewing gay and lesbian veterans. Bérubé presented his work in progress in slide shows at community centers, veterans’ posts, and conferences. His book Coming Out Under Fire, a pioneering study of lesbians and gay men in the military during World War II, was published to critical acclaim in 1990; with filmmaker Arthur Dong, he turned it into an award-winning documentary film.

Oral histories of several veterans led in turn to Bérubé’s research on the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union, a militant and heavily gay male union of freighter and ocean-liner crewmen active from the Depression to the early ‘50s. In its heyday, the union was “a third red, a third black, and a third queer,” according to one seaman interviewed by Bérubé. Its members called themselves “queens” with names like Grace Line Gertie, Madame Queen, and Miss Leprosy; they dished the passengers, stood up for each other against straight management, and demanded respect as well as better pay. Bérubé recounts with relish the story of the time a crewman called union member Jay Shannon a “fruit:” “Mother Shannon grabs a big soup ladle and boy, she slaps him right across the head. ‘Now,’ she says, ‘you son of a bitch, I bet I’m the meanest fucking fruit you ever saw,’ and I mean, she drew blood. That’s the way Jay Shannon would do it, so you didn’t fuck with the Marine Cooks and Stewards.”

Bérubé likes to draw a lesson from his research on the ships. “You begin to see,” he says hopefully,” how people so long ago were able to break down the walls of mistrust. There’s a history of alliances rather than identities.”

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