Gay Marriage’s Jewish Pioneer: Faygele ben Miriam
The activist called Faygele ben Miriam started Washington state’s battle over marriage more than 40 years ago
Decades before any state had seriously considered legalizing gay marriage, long before anyone had thought of creating—never mind repealing—a policy called “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” before Reagan, before AIDS, before the American Psychiatric Association determined that homosexuality was not a mental illness, and before half the people currently living in America were even born, a man named John Singer stepped into the King County marriage license office in Seattle.
The year was 1971.
With him was another man, Paul Barwick, whom he’d met recently at a meeting of the Seattle chapter of the Gay Liberation Front. Barwick was just back from Vietnam, 24 years old, still coming out of the closet. Singer was a little older, 26, very out and very political. He’d served as an Army medic in Germany because of his conscientious-objector status. In the spot reserved for religion, his military dog tag read: “Ethical Culture.” Earlier, at college in New York, he’d been the only member of his ROTC unit who was also in the SDS—Students for a Democratic Society.
These two men, Singer and Barwick, had become fast friends, occasional lovers, and, in a sense, business partners. “The business was gay liberation,” Barwick, now 65 and living in San Francisco, explained recently.
In front of a bunch of local media that had been tipped off in advance, Singer and Barwick marched up to the desk of the county auditor, a man named Lloyd Hara, and told him they wanted a marriage license. Hara refused.
So began one of the first—and least famous—gay marriage lawsuits in the nation, Singer v. Hara. It concluded unsuccessfully, in 1974, with the Washington State Court of Appeals essentially laughing the men out of court. But by that time Singer was on to his next fight, and a new name, Faygele ben Miriam, which he took to simultaneously tweak homophobes (“Faygele” is Yiddish for “little bird” or “faggot”) and honor his mother, Miriam Singer. This uniquely insistent man, who died 12 years ago this week, was in his time a huge force in Washington state’s gay politics, and at the leading edge—really, beyond the leading edge—of what would eventually become the national push to achieve same-sex marriage rights. “He matters because he was part of that first wave of couples challenging the unjust and unfair denial of the freedom to marry,” said Evan Wolfson, founder of the advocacy group Freedom to Marry and author of Why Marriage Matters. “And he spoke for millions, at a time when, in some respects, gay people were just beginning to speak for full inclusion and the right to be let in, not just left alone.”
More than four decades after Faygele entered that marriage office, the fight he helped launch now seems at its climax in Washington state, where the legislature in January took the historic step of legalizing same-sex unions. Opponents of the move need to turn in more than 120,000 signatures today to place a repeal referendum on the November ballot; it seems likely that they’ll have enough. In the meantime, the new Washington state law legalizing same-sex marriage remains on hold and, even though the signature deadline comes the day after the anniversary of his death, Faygele ben Miriam remains largely forgotten—except among a core of local gay-rights activists.
“There’s that Gandhi quote about, ‘First they laugh at you …’ ” said Jamie Pedersen, a gay state representative from Seattle and an architect of a better-known, but also unsuccessful gay marriage lawsuit in Washington state, Andersen v. King County, rejected by the state supreme court in 2006. “I think that first step was sort of Faygele’s role. There were four or five challenges to the country’s marriage laws that came in the first few years after 1969 and Stonewall. Those cases all just got laughed out of court, and then the issue sort of lay dormant for 20 years. … If you think about a time when people literally could not comprehend people of the same sex getting married—well, somebody had to say that for the first time. Planting that seed was a critical first step in having people think, ‘Hm, maybe that could be a possibility—and why not?’ ”
Faygele, it turned out, was preternaturally fixated on asking “Why not?” And then re-asking, and re-asking, and re-asking the question.
Upon his arrival in Seattle in 1970, by way of New York and, briefly, San Francisco, he immediately began stirring up a brand of trouble that was way beyond the confines of its cultural moment. He was propelled by conviction, no doubt, but also by the stacks of unfiltered Camel cigarettes he chain smoked (“If you gave him a filtered cigarette, the first thing he’d do was break the filter off,” Barwick said), and by a likewise unfiltered personality. It seemed to combine the sex drive and irrepressible humanity of Allen Ginsberg (another gay New York Jew); the bravery and timing of Harvey Milk (another gay New York Jew, who started his work on the West Coast two years after Faygele); the fury of Larry Kramer (yet another gay New York Jew, whom Faygele once denounced for taking too long to come out of the closet); and the politics of Woodie Guthrie (another New Yorker, if not a Jew, whose guitar, emblazoned with the phrase “This Machine Kills Fascists,” seems the likely inspiration for the phrase Faygele painted across the Dodge van he drove from Seattle to New York and back several times: “Faggots Against Fascism”).
Also key to the mix: the feminism of his radical mother, Miriam (although Faygele, when discussing that part of his politics, preferred to talk about his “effeminism”).
“He was very energetic, very strange in some ways” said Gary L. Atkins, the Seattle historian and author of Gay Seattle. “Very much a catalyst. And very much, I’d say, even a visionary. And courageous.”
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