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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

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Faygele lights a candle at his last Passover Seder in Seattle, in 2000. (Geoff Manasse)

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.

Faygele ben Miriam (left), then known as John Singer, applies for a marriage license with Paul Barwick at the King County Administration Building in Seattle in 1971

Faygele ben Miriam (left), then known as John Singer, applies for a marriage license with Paul Barwick at the King County Administration Building in Seattle in 1971. (Seattlepi.com archives)

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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I wonder if his parents knew he’d turn out gay when they named him Feygele?

:-)

Denis Gray says:

Do you think that it is a matter of pride for Jews to  have it pointed out that  a Jew is a prominent advocate of gay marriage ”
Does the Torah count for nothing?
Are Jews or are they  not ,the people who  were once no people at all?
Did Israel stand  or not at the foot of Sinai and witness to the awe full presence of G-d?
Did  the people of Israel  hear or  not hear the 10 commandments  proclaimed to them?
Did not Israel freely  respond AMEN to the second reading of the commandments ?

Then let those who are on G-d’s side step forward  and proclaim that.

Denis: I wasn’t aware that the prohibition on mishcav zachar was in the 10 Commandments. Thank you for pointing that out; now I understand why people are so fixated on this as a matter of religion. 

 Did you read the article?  He changed his name to Feygele as an adult.

Yes, I read the article: as a rule of thumb, the emoticon :-) usually signifies a joke; sorry if I had to break that subtlety down for you….

Denis Gray:

I’m honestly not sure who is on God’s side and who isn’t, especially not in this day and age, but I’d sure as hell rather be on Feygele ben Miriam’s side than on the same side of any issue as a sanctimonious and grandiloquent creep like you.

 Ah.  I’m much more used to intelligent humor that doesn’t rely on childlike emoticons, since they are interpretive.  Comedy is rooted in truth and there was no truth in your attempt. Sorry I had to break down the subtleties of comedy to you…

Denis Gray says:

I can only bow to your eloquence  Chrysostom  reborn.

Denis Gray says:

 Being oblivious to the dignity and wholeness of another person is egotistic by any standard.
Fixation  on the  genitalia of  that person (especially if he or she is a member of one’s   own sex ) ,to merely  arouse and  satisfy one’s own base  appetites is sheer lust.
 Lust is has nothing to do with loving the other.  Lust is  oblivious to the other, as a person.

Lust  amounts to a  kind of  narcissism  and narcissism is but another form of idolatry.

 Thou shalt not have any other gods before me. = No idols . idolatry in any form is forbidden .

k56sf says:

Replying to D. Gray

Perhaps in vain, but I would like to share, an exercise to perhaps shift your perception of “what” a “gay” relationship is. What evoked this response was the phrase “fixation on the genitalia”. Transcending gender, there is NO distinction between a “gay” or “non-heterosexual” relationship based on love, mutual commitment, and a “heterosexual” relationship. To assume, in a monolithic manner, that ALL gay relationships are “fixated on genitalia” is a bit disingenuous. Would you say this about ALL heterosexual relationships? What we are discussing is two humans bonding on an intimate level. By implying that the only basis for gay relationships/bonding is driven by genitalia fixation is demeaning to folks who are sincerely engaged in meaningful, loving, healthy, giving, relationships. Reflectively, by saying this it also implies ALL heterosexual relationships, which is again the bonding between humans, is genitalia fixated.Finally, when did being/not being a Jew become predicated on whether one is/is not heterosexual? I think everyone needs to think much deeper on this and read their Torah a lot deeper and mediate a lot more on this riddle.

Hershl says:

Great article!!

9Athena says:

Jew/Torah/Commandments. Long before there was a written Torah, there were the tribal stories and myths. As people learned to write, stories were written down. Do you think Moses floated in a straw basket? If he did, he had company either in the basket or on the river. Read Gilgamesh. The commandments, which codified rules of behavior. So did Hamurabbi’s code of laws prescribe how people should behave. Those laws predated the commandments by centuries. Very similar. Did G-d write the Torah? Not likely.  Men wrote what they culled from memories of history, stories and myths. Some of it is for real.Flood, flight from Egypt.  Read again the story of the flight and why. Relate it to what you have to know in this day and age of  terrible eruptions that cover the land with deadly misma, coloring the river, bugs and animals wild. Everyone got out of Dodge including the Egyptians who carried their gold with them. That’s where the gold for Baal came from in the desert. The  redactors stated that when the slaves gor ready to flee, the Egyptians gave them gold as a parting gift. You bet. And there were no Jews then. Hebrews, Habirus, no Jews. When Moses gathered them together for his address: for the first time in Torah we hear Schma Yisrael, He looked at the motley gathering and converted them all to Yisrael. Black, brown, oriental-all Yisrael. And finally, when G-d commanded Moses to speak with Pharoah before all of this-the answer from Moses was ‘not me’. And again-go speak to Pharoah. And again-not me.  And that’s why Moses is the most beloved of all. Because as the epitome of the gifts given to man: life and free will :Moses exercised his free will and ensured his place at God’s side.  Without the exercise of free will-man is a vegetable or a plant. Read the story of David. Bad bad boy. But beloved of the creator. why?  Because he knew he was bad and admitted it. Now read Torah again and understand the message. Your open brain is what makes you worthy to the creator.

walterbc says:

What impact we have on this world is not for us to judge..we have to just do what is set in front of us to do.   This is what Feygele thaught me.  He has and will continue to have an impact for generations to come.

Not sure what idolatry has to do with this biographical article about a human being born into an environment not ready to accept what God created.  All of us, regardless of designation, are born with Adonai within us, our souls.  And only the courageous and steadfast will take on armor to fight for humanity.  Based on our history, that includes an inordinate number of Jews. The concept of the “chosen people” is the irony.  Perhaps Torah prepared us for the fight. So those who profess to “know” Torah should read more to reveal the truth; they are not the only ones to understand what we were given, and perhaps there is more to the teaching.

Is your relationship based on genital fixation and lust? My relationship with my partner is based on love and respect and nurturing; in a relationship like that making love is an avenue of sharing intimacy and expressing love/desire/attraction. You obviously don’t know any gay couples, or you wouldn’t find it so easy to dehumanize us; you obviously don’t know Torah, or you wouldn’t be able to so easily twist it for your agenda.

CynthiaChiles says:

I address gay marriage in my blog:  TimesOfGayMarriage.blogspot.com

phutatorius says:

Not all that germane to the main point of the article, but Woody Guthrie was an Okie and Allen Ginsberg was born in Newark and grew up in Paterson, NJ. If you’re too lazy to fact-check, then just leave it out.

 

To answer your first question, yes, I’m proud of Faygele.  He embodied much of what I love best in Jewish culture: passion for questioning, for justice; a quest for wholeness on behalf of himself and his society.

Since the civil rights aspects of this story are now so commonplace, what stands out is FBM’s strident Jewishness in the Pacific Northwest at a time when the Pacific Northwest was very, very un-Jewish.

It’s probably difficult for many young Jews to imagine, but it wasn’t that long ago when big-name progressive-seeming cities such as Seattle and Portland didn’t have much of a Jewish presence. And to venture not far outside those cities was to enter regions of the U.S. where the only minorities you might encounter were Native Americans.

Nowadays, a gay person or a Jewish person or a gay Jewish person probably wouldn’t give much thought to whether Washington or Oregon might be inhospitable or alienating. But FBM went to the Pacific Northwest in a decidedly different era. (The was no internet, for example, to help you establish and maintain contact with a bigger, more cosmopolitan world.)

You can’t but wonder why FBM, at the time, chose Seattle over a more obvious destination such as Los Angeles.

Why was it necessary to refer to the man as “Faygele” throughout the article?  The surname was ben Miriam.  Out of respect for his age alone, the surname should have been used.  Is this another case of a HuffPo contributor wanting to pepper the word “f*ggot” (or a form of it) everywhere?  This blog suffers from “reclaimed” hate speech overkill, especially Gay Voices.

paul delano says:

 You can be proud of anyone you choose. When it comes to homosexuality, perhaps compassion is a better choice of words.  Heterosexual sexuality is the normal modus operandi which has given life to this world. Homosexuality is an abnormal perversion of the male-female union. As such, it is nothing to be admired but those who are afflicted with it are to be regarded with compassion.

Marriage is, has always been, about the children the union might produce. The participants in traditional marriage are called “bride” and “groom”, then “husband” and “wife”. These terms are gender-specific; applying them to different genders makes most people uncomfortable.
 
The simple solution is to stop calling homosexual unions “marriage”. Create a legal system that allows individuals to create a mutually supportive union, just as individuals can create a union for business purposes (partnership, corporation, LLC, PC). Give it similar characteristics as marriage* but reserve the term “marriage” to heterosexual unions. If homosexuals will give up their insistence on their union being called “marriage”, then perhaps heterosexuals will give up their resistance to homosexual unions.
 
*Some conditions for marriage because of children who will result from marriage might be omitted for homosexual unions; e.g., prohibition of union of closely-related persons, number of persons in the union. Other conditions might be required for the same reason; e.g., only persons of the same sex can participate in the union.

“…the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for being communist-leaning Jews .” That was (and I guess, is) the claim of their defenders, but is false. The Rosenbergs were charged with and convicted of “conspiracy to commit espionage”, a capital crime. Anti-Communist (and likely anti-Jewish) hysteria was prevalent at the time, but Julius Rosenberg was a spy for the Soviet Union, confirmed by information since the collapse of the Soviet Union and now acknowledged by their children. See an excellent, detailed account at http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/rosenb/ROS_ACCT.HTM.

DavidBernstein says:

“Faygele
took from this, and from the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for
being communist-leaning Jews (much like his parents), that he and his
siblings simply had to be political.”  Julius Rosenberg was executed for being a Soviet spy, and Ethel for being a co-conspirator, not because they were “Communist leaning Jews.”

Martha_Jean_Baker says:

Faygele was a friend of ours and we miss him.  Days before he died we travelled from London where we now live to Seattle and we brought with us some non-pasturised cheeses of kinds that cannot be sold in the US.  It was a hot day and the first thing we did was to take the cheeses to Faygele.  He was ill and could barely talk but he said, ‘these cheeses are illegal, right?’ And when we confirmed that they were he started to eat some.

He used to have pot luck Shabbat  dinners where we were regulars.  He always made something wonderful.  He was know for his generosity in all things including food.  He would bake for all the progressive meetings – lemon squares and ruggula – remember them!

We scheduled a 50th birthday party for my partner some years ago now (after one of Fagele’s homophobia workshops, my partner decided he would be more upset if one of his children married someone non Jewish than if they came out as gay).  Three weeks before the party we noticed that people from all over were going to be there and we would never get all those people together again so we thought, ‘wouldn’t it be fun to get married at the party and not tell anyone before hand.’  We had not previously thought to get married.  We asked a rabbi we knew who was already coming to the party if we could put him to work and we asked an artist friend if he could create a Ketuba for us on such short notice and we asked a jeweler whose work we admired if he could make us rings in short notice.  We told no one else.

Faygele had said that he could not come to the birthday party because it was his faerie weekend.  After deciding on the wedding we asked if there was anything we could say or tell him to get him there and he said there were two sacred weekends each year for him – folk dance and faerie.  But he said he would like to have a presence there so he made some of his famous spanikopita for the party.

When it came time for the ceremony, quite late because it was a Saturday in summer and we had to wait until Shabbat was over, we started to gather the people we needed for the ceremony.   we had a  lot of gay and lesbian friends in Seattle and we were worried as to how they would react to a wedding when they thought there were coming to a birthday party.  We had asked the rabbi to say that we knew that not everyone had the privilege to do what we were doing and we hoped the day would come soon when anyone who wished to could do the same thing.  Several friends thanked us for having that comment included in the ceremony.

Faygele also talked about when he was drafted and they asked if he had homosexual tendencies and he felt he could honestly answer ‘no’ because it was way beyond the tendency stage.  Sometimes at gay pride he would walk with the gays in the military group.

Denis Gray, you are what is wrong with the Jewish people! You are a bad as the Christian evangelicals and the Moslem Allah worshippers! G-d never said anything about it being wrong to be gay, even G-d is gay. And if you want to run your Bible and say it says right here, thou shalt not lay with men oy ye who are also men, then okay, grant you that, the Bible is a bunch of propaganda and legends, get over it, but sure your Bible says nothing about gay women so it’s okay to be a lesbain in your book but not a gay man? You are fekarkt, sir! Shame on you!

HEAR HEAR!~

PAul, you are not Jewish i assume. but in Judaism, Homosexuality is the natural state of ten percent of all animals and humans, face the facts sir. we only need 90 percent straight people to makes babies to overpopulate the world. the ten percent who don’t make babies are part of nature’s ways too. do you worship science or totem poles? oi.

you guys are living in the Middle Ages. god bless you but you are!

yes, in those days, 1971, phrases like “to jew someone down” were common daily parlance in seattle shops and homes, when talking about bargaining down a price, even when shiksas were doing it…..o life….i hear many Alaskans still talk like that with that phrase, even Sarah Palin…..without any idea the term is offensive to Jews….. funny!

incredibly thoughtful, honest and potent tribute to one of our outstanding liberationists and a beloved, irascible brother who inspired me tremendously in my 40 years as a cultural worker…so pontificates ye olde Sr. Missionary Position, nurtured by the ruggulas and cheese cakes he would bring in a foot locker to our early faerie gatherings.

rita smith says:

Fagele,

You are still “stirring it up” after all these years – bless you!

Pearl Maj says:

My mother grew up with Faygele in Mt. Vernon. He looked her up in Seattle (as she put it, she looked out in the hall, and there was John Singer wearing a dress and swinging a purse).

I miss Faygele. He was one of a kind. I am so glad that @Martha_Jean_Baker:disqus mentioned his ruggelach because it’s the best I’ve ever had. When I sat shiva for my mother, Faygele made me a giant container of stuffed cabbage that was the only thing I wanted to eat — I still remember how good it was. His memory truly is for a blessing.

I have heard it said : That the only thing two Jews agree on is what the third should be doing ! This was a great article. I also appreciated the comments that followed. It reminded me of my proud heritage and also that the good deeds we do such as standing up for our rights and beliefs on this earth endure
long after our presence on it !

I remember Faygele’s stay in Wolf Creek at Carl and Alan’s farm putting together the Rural Fairie Digest or whatever they called RFD that quarter. He was a truthful and playful human being with a very serious mission. His name in Yiddish means little bird.
Thanks for a good article about him.

David Concannon says:

You deserved the Pulitzer. Great article. Keep them coming!

Kevin in Ky says:

I had never heard of this unique individual, I am very glad I read the entire article.

okiegirl says:

I wanted to point this out too, but it seemed nit-picky. Leave oklahoma the few cool famous people we have!

Argaman says:

He called himself “Faygele” – shouldn’t we respect his choice of name?

jag43 says:

Whatever. The plight of two boys our age being deliberately orphaned has left me with a lifelong horror of capital punishment.

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