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
In a videotaped 1995 interview, conducted as part of the research for Atkins’ book, Faygele himself—wearing Star of David earrings, a polo shirt, a necklace, several large rings on his fingers, and tan shorts with a braided belt—spoke in a lilting, slightly raspy voice about his political philosophy. “People need to stand up,” he said. “I don’t have a whole lot of sympathy for people who complain and don’t do.”
Born in New York City in 1944 and raised mostly in Mount Vernon, N.Y., Faygele ben Miriam, then known to his family as John Singer, was the oldest of four children. His grandparents had emigrated from Poland and Lithuania, and his parents, Miriam and Irving, conceived him as Irving—who had signed up to fight in World War II before the United States even entered it, out of an immigrant son’s sense of debt owed—prepared to ship off to battle. The idea was that if Irving was killed in combat, Miriam would still have a child.
Irving did return from the war and, according to Faygele’s younger brother Michael Singer, a 65-year-old retired physicist, went on to work “in what he called bulk liquid petrochemicals.” Miriam ran a Planned Parenthood clinic. Theirs was a circle of ardent leftists and serious talkers. “Life was political,” Faygele recalled in the 1995 video interview. “The dinner table could be filled with all manner of political discussion.” Over a meal, his mother would talk about the internment of the Japanese, or what had been done to Native Americans, or how she was leading a fight against prayer in the local public schools (and being denounced from the pulpit by a local priest as a result). Faygele and his siblings absorbed all this and participated as kids in sympathy strikes to support the civil rights sit-ins going on in the South. One time, visiting some family friends in Rome, N.Y., the Singers ended up sharing the dinner table with Alex Haley, who had just finished, but not yet published, his book The Autobiography of Malcolm X. “And so we sat there, transfixed, as he recounted the story of this man,” Faygele said.
While it was an extraordinarily political upbringing, it was not an extraordinarily religious one. “I don’t believe in God,” Faygele said in the 1995 interview. “I don’t believe in any of that stuff. I wasn’t even circumcised. I mean, my mother, as a political act, when I was born, said she was not making a blood sacrifice to a God she didn’t believe in and went against the entire family to not circumcise me.”
But the family was Jewish-identified. 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. Because they were Jews. Because the times demanded a political reaction. “It was imperative,” he said.
Not everything political was discussed at the Singers’ dinner table, however. “Never anything gay, of course,” Faygele said. “That didn’t become an issue until later on.” By later on, he meant the early 1960s.
“My parents found out I was gay about 1963, ’64, somewhere in there,” Faygele said. “My mother’s first reaction was, ‘My God, I’m not going to have grandchildren.’… And my father, in a lot of ways, was threatened.” His mother quickly got over it and embraced his sexuality, but he continued to have “major clashes” with his father over his lifestyle and particularly his level of openness. “That was a little much for him,” Faygele said.
He went off to City College of New York, took his time getting through, worked as a VISTA volunteer in inner-city St. Louis (“as part of the belief that there’s change possible in this world,” he said), got involved in the protests against the Vietnam War, began enacting, with increasing frequency and ferocity, his idea that there was no distance between the personal and political.
Asked for his early role models in that 1995 interview, Faygele mentioned Albert Schweitzer and then broadened the picture to include anyone “who devotes their life to something they believe in, not just getting a job and working to be rich and successful. That kind of model. … People who gave their lives to politics. … The civil rights leaders.”
In June 1969, he returned from his military service in Germany. It was right around the time of the Stonewall riots, but, he said, “I hadn’t heard of Stonewall. I mean, it happened in June of ’69 in New York. I just hadn’t heard of it. But there was a group on the City College campus called Homosexuals Intransigent! All underlined.” He got involved with them and with the Student Homophile League at Columbia University. Then he got into “a power struggle” with one of the Homophile League leaders because the guy, Faygele said, was “a terrible misogynist.” (This would become a theme of his political involvement, by the way: the departure from an organization amid what he would term a “power struggle.”)
He then fell in love with a man involved in the Gay Activists Alliance. “He took me to a meeting, and it was incredible,” Faygele said. “And it filled up my life. … I had five committee meetings a week. I was on every committee.” He helped organize demonstrations at City Hall and noticed how some people would come to meetings but wouldn’t feel empowered enough to join the demonstrations, so they would just come to watch—and then, while watching from the sidelines, would decide to join. “It was like an explosion of consciousness raising,” he said.
Then, in 1970, he left New York.
The White House wants credit for successes but blames Israel for failures, a New York Times exposé shows