Major LGBT History Discovery Brings Veteran's Life Story to Light
October 10, 2014
PHILADELPHIA - Researchers have discovered a previously unknown 149-page manuscript defending homosexuality. The scholars have also documented the remarkable life of its author, a gay Jewish World War II veteran, Allen Bernstein.
“Bernstein’s eccentric essay – personal, sociological, and historical -- is a major discovery in gay American history,” said Jonathan Ned Katz, co-director of OutHistory.org, the website of lesbian, gay, etc. history. Katz, a long-time scholar of lesbian, gay, etc. history, analyses the “MILLIONS” essay on OutHistory. “This adds one, rare, fascinating account to the small genre of homosexual defenses written or published in the U.S. in the twentieth century,” Katz declared.
In advance of National Coming Out Day, Oct. 11, during LGBT History Month 2014, the document has been published with supporting analyses on OutHistory. Included are Bernstein’s original typed “MILLIONS” essay; a retyped, searchable version of the essay; Katz’s historical analysis of the essay; a brief biography of Bernstein by Drexel University’s Randall Sell, ScD; and an introduction to all these works.
Sell, an associate professor of Community Health and Prevention at the Drexel University School of Public Health, found the manuscript in 2010 while searching the National Library of Medicine for the earliest uses of the term “queer” in reference to homosexuality. As a public health researcher whose specialty includes measuring and estimating population prevalence of homosexuality, Sell was particularly intrigued by the document’s title, “MILLIONS OF QUEERS.” Sell, who has advocated for the collection of sexual orientation data on health surveys since 1988, is also an avid and accomplished LGBT history researcher. He earlier provided OutHistory with part of the missing third memoir by the transgender Earl Lind/Ralph Werther/Jennie June. Sell also initiated the discovery by the History Detectives TV show of the original name, Frances V. Rummell, of the lesbian who published an autobiography under the pseudonym “Diana Frederics,” in 1939.
After studying the “MILLIONS” manuscript over several years, Sell eventually identified Bernstein as the possible author and reached out to Katz. Together, they confirmed the essay’s authorship and began a collaborative process of scholarly analysis that is still ongoing.
Bernstein’s “MILLIONS OF QUEERS” is one of the earliest written defenses of homosexuality in English. In it, Bernstein offers a libertarian argument that homosexuals don’t hurt anyone, should not be criminalized and stigmatized and should be left alone to work out their non-conforming lives by themselves. Expressing such a view, and signing his name to it, as Bernstein did in several essays, was a daring, radical act in its day.
Bernstein’s essay is unusual for its use of common, derogatory terms, especially “homo” and “queer”, as casual, value-neutral labels, decades before the term “queer” was reclaimed with pride by LGBT groups beginning in the 1990s.
Katz noted that Bernstein’s document is also a rich source of historical insight into gay culture from the 1920s and ’30s. It offers glimpses into hundreds of lives based on Bernstein’s direct observation and a network of pseudonymous informants. Included are anecdotes about an active Boehmian queer culture in Boston, stories about gay men’s lives in heterosexual marriages, legal persecution of homosexual behavior, and the deaths of queer friends by suicide.
“The life of the essay’s author, Allen Bernstein, is as interesting as his manuscript,” said Sell, who has been studying Bernstein’s career and authored a biographical essay about him for OutHistory. “Bernstein was married for 45 years to a woman who he told he was gay before marriage. They had two sons, Gerald and Robert who enthusiastically cooperated with our research.”
Bernstein voluntarily enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1940. After verbally expressing interest in a male sailor, Bernstein was reported to Army authorities, arrested, jailed overnight and placed in a psychiatric ward. Upon admitting to Army authorities that he was gay, he was expelled with a less-than-honorable blue section 8 discharge in 1944, a type of discharge then used to dismiss soldiers for homosexuality or psychiatric illnesses. The persistent Bernstein immediately began a series of appeals that continued for 37 years. The Army finally reversed itself, giving Bernstein an honorable discharge and veteran status in 1981.
Bernstein’s wife died in 1991 after which he began coming out more openly as a gay World War II veteran. In 1993 Bernstein spoke publicly as a gay veteran in a letter to a Maine newspaper arguing against the Army’s discriminatory policies against homosexuals. He compared those policies to the Army’s discrimination against Blacks and women. He also came out as a gay veteran in an interview with the Library of Congress, Veterans History Project, in 2003. Bernstein died in 2008.
Sell relays the story of Bernstein’s life as a fascinating, ornery, persistent figure, undeterred by setbacks and persecution.
“We believe he was trying to publish his 1940 ‘MILLIONS’ essay along with other even earlier essays defending homosexuals,” Sell said. “He wrote a book of gay poetry that he self-published in 1941, when he was a soldier in the U.S. Army, copyrighted it and listed his military base as his address! In 1944, just after he was thrown out, he wrote an essay that may be the earliest defense of gays in the military.”
Sell said that the reasons Bernstein remained an unknown figure in gay history until now likely stemmed from the fact that he lived much of his adult life in Maine, outside of the better-documented urban hubs of LGBT social movements. Another possible reason is that during his 45-year marriage to a woman, who knew he was gay, he kept his activity in early gay organizations largely to himself like most gay men of his time.
Allen Bernstein “would have been unexpectedly pleased that he was wrong that homosexuals live lonely lives as they age,” said Gerald Bernstein, referencing a belief Allen expressed in his “MILLIONS” essay. “In many ways, his last 15 years were probably the best years of his life! Especially as he could come out and finally be himself in a more accepting society.”
Sell is continuing his study of Bernstein’s life and writings, including other essays and poems from Bernstein’s personal records that were provided by his sons.