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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)

Few people who knew him in Seattle are clear on exactly why, which suggests that he didn’t talk about it much—he just showed up and began fighting in a new city. Even his younger brother Michael Singer, speaking of Faygele’s move across the country, told me: “I have no idea why he did that.”

In the 1995 interview, Faygele said simply, “I left New York in the spring of ’70,” and then moved on to telling another part of the story—the part about how he tried working for a short while in San Francisco but found the closeted culture of the office he was in too difficult to deal with and so departed for Seattle, where he at first got by collecting $32 a week in unemployment, and ended up staying.

But in one interview, conducted for the Northwest Lesbian and Gay History Museum Project in January 2000, just a few months before his death, Faygele opened up a bit about the reasons for the relocation. He was asked: “Why had you decided to leave New York?”

He replied: “Well, I had—The rest of my family was also involved in politics, of different kinds. And my own internalized homophobia said I didn’t want to spill over my politics onto theirs.”

Also, he said, he had been “held up” while coming home to his apartment one day. “And, you know, New York—the first real problem I had—but it was time. I was ready to get out.”

***

The activists Faygele befriended in Seattle are full of stories about the doings of this odd and unstoppable gay Jew in what was, at the time, a very slow-moving, un-gay, un-Jewish place. Barwick recalled that at his first Seattle Gay Liberation Front meeting in 1970, he’d been delighted to meet what he termed “real gay people” for the first time, “and one of those people was Faygele. It was also the first time I was meeting someone from New York. That was almost as much of a shock.”

Elizabeth Rae Larsen, now 71, remembered that when she was acting as the director of Seattle Counseling Services, which opened in 1969 and was the first gay- and lesbian-focused counseling center in the nation, Faygele arrived there to volunteer. One of her major jobs, she said, turned out to be “having to manage the energy, the thing that was Faygele, to keep everyone else from freaking out. Faygele was a very disruptive presence in any environment. He would actually wear dresses that were not as long as the end of his dong. I mean, come on, that’s asking a lot of your audience.”

Shan Ottey, 65, who knew Faygele and is now working on a radical queer history website that will feature him, added: “Usually you think of a gay man who does drag as a drag queen. Well, he was a different kind of drag queen. Full beard in drag kind of person.”

“I met Faygele in 1970 when he was still John Singer,” remembered Patrick Haggerty, one of the creators of Lavender Country, the first gay country album, which Faygele—hands always in a lot of pots—helped produce. “I met him at a gay bar in Seattle. I think it was the Double Header. Someone introduced us, because we were both gay activists, and I can’t recall who introduced us, but I can certainly recall meeting him. When I met Faygele, there weren’t all that many people out in Seattle—like, maybe 40 or 50. So, the circle was small, and I was in the circle and eager to meet anyone. … Faygele was also a radical. He wasn’t just out. He was a radical. I have a very similar personality. Not so much anymore, because I’m old and tired. But at the time I was a rabid, in-your-face, screaming Marxist bitch.”

Haggerty’s personality sketch of Faygele at the time: “Acute, intelligent, acrid, sometimes rabid, decidedly and markedly pro-feminist—lesbians loved Faygele—and angry. Pissed. Off. Yeah. He was very angry about the way the world operated. Not just about the gay thing, but in general. Also, Faygele was very visible as a Jew. He was a Jewish activist as well as a gay activist, and he was very up on Jewish issues.”

Rabbi Charna Klein, 66, who founded Kadima—“a progressive reconstructionist community”—in her Seattle living room in the late ’70s, remembers Faygele doing his knitting at one of the early Kadima meetings. Lois Thetford, 66, now a part-time lecturer at the University of Washington School of Medicine, recalled another side of him: “The very first time I met Faygele, was when he was living on Malden Avenue in kind of a commune.” (Barwick, who lived in the commune at the time, described it as “a puke-yellow, two-story house with an overgrown yard, a detached garage, and lots of comings and goings. It was drag queens and the macho guys and just plain old gays, bears, people who were into politics, and others of us who didn’t think of it so much as politics—but it was politics. It was: How do you take an invisible, put-down minority and make yourself respectable, make yourself be seen?” Another resident of the commune added: “Everyone was on food stamps.”) On that day, Thetford had come by the commune to drop off a friend named Sandra, who, like Barwick, was living there.

“Faygele,” Thetford continued, “had very strong feelings about how you share space—that you clean up after yourself, and you don’t leave dishes around, and that you do your share of chores—and he was having a fit about the fact that Sandra had left dishes in the sink. She had not done what he thought she should have done, and he took the dishes and put them in her bed. And he was yelling, and my initial reaction was, ‘Oh boy, I don’t want to get anywhere near this person.’ ”

Faygele turned that first impression around quickly, and soon Thetford was working with him in a group called the Anti-Imperialist Coalition and jumping into his “Gay Power Van”—the one with “Faggots Against Facism” painted on the side—for a road trip across the country.

Stephen Billey, 56, who now works for Washington’s Employment Security Department, was also along for that road trip. “I formulated my stereotype of Jews from him,” Billey said of Faygele. “I thought all Jews were progressive radical types who would lay their lives on the line for people.”

The trip was in 1972, Billey said, and Faygele was heading home to New York to visit his father, who was dying of cancer. In the van along with the three of them were two other fellow travelers: a gay man and a pre-op transgender man headed to Chicago.

“It was August,” Billey said. “He took the name Faygele while driving through Montana. He said, ‘I’m thinking of taking a political name. I’m thinking of calling myself Faygele. But I don’t think my parents are going to like that.’ ”

Faygele had also renamed his Dodge van—“Adonis,” Billey said he called it.

Adonis overheated a lot, and at one point they had to pull into a small town in Montana to get it looked at by a mechanic. “The look on this guy’s face … ” Billey remembered.

He translated the look as: “Please, I want you to be safe. It’s just a faulty radiator cap. Please, leave.”

***

“It just kind of snowballed,” Faygele said of his activism in Seattle. Within six months, they’d formed the commune on Malden Street, plus a gay community center at 102 Cherry Street. There was also the counseling center, already up and running. And the Gay Liberation Front was busy, too, dealing with its own complicated internal politics (“There was a time when all the women we hung out with decided they wanted to be separatist,” Barwick recalled. “The only man they’d talk to was Faygele.”) plus actions that eventually ended up running a homophobic police chief out of town, among other things. And then there was the marriage lawsuit.

“What we were doing was a political act,” Faygele said. “We went down there and asked for the forms to fill out. And they of course refused. … Anyway, it got an incredible amount of publicity. I mean, we were on local TV, local newspapers, one of the wire services picked it up, there’d be little 2-inch items in papers all across the country about this gay marriage case. And, through the community center or in the house, we would get calls from people. Occasionally, we would also get things like Bible tracts. But [the calls were from] people who were very unconnected to any gay movement stuff, especially, like, people from small towns, who had never seen anything gay in the paper before. This was their first—and they could call someone, they could talk to someone. It was incredible. There wasn’t coverage of gay events. Rarely. This was kind of—it was so freaky they had to cover it. So, it kind of helped break a ban on gay stuff. … There weren’t any media images of us in a regular, normal fashion. And so in a sense we accomplished a lot of what we wanted to do. It was an incredible consciousness-raising tool.”

It also led to his second major lawsuit, one he brought against the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where he worked as a typist and regularly showed up wearing women’s clothing.

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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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Portrait of an Activist

Photographs by Geoff Manasse