Though not well-known in the United States, French author and political activist Daniel Guerin was one of the most prominent queer voices of the European left in the mid-20th century.Born in 1904 to a wealthy but liberal Paris family, Guerin attended an elite university. He published his first book of poetry at age 18. But he shunned a literary or academic career. Instead, he embraced Marxism, largely motivated by his sexual liaisons with working-class men.
“I came to socialism through phallism,” Guerin later said.
In his early 20s, Guerin traveled extensively in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, an experience that turned him against colonialism. In 1930, he returned to France, where he became a labor movement organizer.
Four years later, Guerin married an Austrian woman, with whom he had a daughter. Although he continued throughout his life to have sexual relationships with young working men, he was painfully aware of the need to keep these affairs secret from homophobic comrades.
In the early 1930s, Guerin wrote two books about the rise of fascism and its connection with capitalism. Later that decade, he opposed General Francisco Franco’s fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War. During World War II, Guerin ran an office of the International Workers’ Front in Norway, where he was arrested by Nazi soldiers. Released because of poor health, he returned to France, and worked with the communist underground resistance.
After living in the United States in the late 1940s, Guerin wrote about the American labor movement and the black civil rights struggle. Turning to his own backyard, he became an outspoken opponent of French colonization in Algeria. Reflecting his disillusionment with Stalinism and the left’s negative attitude toward sexual politics, his political views evolved to reflect a synthesis of Marxism and anarchism that he dubbed libertarian communism.
In the mid-1950s, Guerin began writing about the persecution of homosexuals, likening it to other forms of oppression such as racism. In contrast with leftists who saw homosexuality as a bourgeois deviation, he instead argued that homophobia propped up the middle-class nuclear family and, ultimately, capitalism. As such, he believed sexual freedom only could be achieved through social revolution led by the working class.
Guerin seldom associated with other gay or bisexual men as a young adult, but in the 1950s, he joined the newly formed homophile group Arcadie, and wrote for its magazine. He penned several autobiographical works over the next two decades that progressively revealed his sexual proclivities and his internal struggles regarding his gender identity. The student and worker uprising of May 1968 propelled him fully out of the closet, allowing him finally to reconcile what he called the “cruel dichotomy” between his political and sexual selves.
Guerin joined the Front Homosexuel d’Action Révolutionnaire, a radical gay liberation group, when it formed in 1971. But he soon grew disappointed with young gay activists, whom he saw as overly hedonistic and gratuitously provocative. He became increasingly critical of the gay movement’s turn toward consumerism and ghettoization, the latter of which conflicted with his ideal of universal bisexuality.
In 1969, Guerin wrote that “revolution—like landing on the moon—has entered the realm of the immediate and possible.”
While Guerin’s aspirations for libertarian communism never came to pass, by the time of his death in 1988, he had witnessed remarkable gains in the realm of GLBT civil rights.
Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication, or at [email protected].