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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

Eli Sanders
June 06, 2012
Geoff Manasse
Geoff Manasse
Geoff Manasse
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 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.”

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.

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.

“To this day I don’t know how it happened,” he said in the 1995 interview. “Whether the civil service did it on its own, or someone else complained to the civil service commission, but they drew up a list of charges against me—that I needed to be terminated, because my working for the federal government as an openly gay man would cause people to lose faith in the civil service system.” The charges included mentions of what was written on the side of Faygele’s van and the fact that he’d publicly admitted he was gay. “The issue of what I wore was not in the case, but the judges knew, both sides knew, that I was flitting around in dresses all the time,” Faygele added. “It was all true. I didn’t contest any of it.”

The people in the Seattle office stood up for him, noted the irony of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission terminating a man for being gay, and signed a letter saying that Faygele was actually a great employee, especially because as a minority himself he had a certain sensitivity to minority issues. “But they were powerless,” he said. “So, I was terminated.”

He sued, with the help of the local ACLU, and the case, which lasted five and a half years, went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ultimately remanded the case back to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, effectively ordering that Faygele be reinstated and given back-pay and benefits. “I didn’t want the job back,” he said, “but I did take the five-and-a-half years pay, very gladly.”

He was not finished causing trouble. He moved to the Olympic Peninsula, where some gay men and lesbians were trying to run a collectivist farm along the Elwha River, made a go of it for a while there, and then “was kicked out in a power struggle”—but not before helping lead a takeover of his new voting precinct in the city of Port Angeles, which was then “a conservative logging town,” as he put it. Faygele and some Elwha farm members teamed up with a voting bloc from the nearby Lower Elwha Indian reservation, voted themselves into leadership of the precinct (“these white people were just aghast,” he remembered), got themselves sent as delegates to the Democratic convention in Clallam County, and there, Faygele said, put a gay-rights platform proposal up for a vote. This was in the mid-1970s. “Because I was a voting alternate,” Faygele recalled, “someone said to me, ‘Do you have any resolutions to put forth?’ I thought about it and said, ‘Yes, we can do something on gay rights.’ I had to quickly get 10 signatures. We lost by about a two- or three-vote margin, but it was voted on, long before it was voted on in King County or any of the other urban centers. This was direct grassroots politics, with some interesting alliances.”

He also spent time on another collective farm in Wolf Creek, Ore., one of the birthplaces of the Radical Faeries, an earthy, eccentric group of queers who decidedly don’t fit the normal gay molds. Faygele was a Faerie himself, and a contemporary and compatriot of Harry Hay, who is widely considered to be one of two founders of the Faerie movement, which continues to this day.

Faygele is not typically mentioned as the other co-founder of the Faeries—that’s Hay’s companion, John Burnside. But, Faygele said, at the Elwha farm “we had what was called in the parlance of the day a faggot gathering. Now it would be called a Faerie gathering. … It predates some of the Faerie movement stuff, though I think it was one of the strains of the Faerie movement.” He didn’t like the Faeries’ power struggles, either: “The founders of the Faerie movement who were vested in being founders—see, I don’t think there are founders. This is a strain that led into that. There isn’t a person you can credit and say, ‘This person founded that.’ It happened. I have trouble with some of the history as it’s written. Some of the history that I was actually involved in. So, I have my own perspective on what happened.”

Somewhere along the way, Faygele contracted HIV. Accounts differ as to whether this happened early or late in his life. Accounts also differ as to what he ultimately died from. “He died, near as I can tell, from a brain hemorrhage,” said Thomas Singer, 63, Faygele’s other younger brother, who now lives in North Carolina and works as a salesman. “And it seemed to not be related to any AIDS type situation.”

“He died of a brain tumor,” writes Atkins in Gay Seattle. According to Paul Barwick, Faygele died of lung cancer, from all those unfiltered cigarettes. According to Larsen, it was brain cancer, lung cancer, and HIV as well. According to Thetford, “He was HIV-positive. So, he had a number of infections. But he developed lung cancer.”

“He died of AIDS,” said Haggerty. “People are just using euphemisms. He was HIV-positive and he died from it. That’s not any kind of secret.”

Whatever the case, Faygele passed away on June 5, 2000. His mother, Miriam, who had moved to Seattle to be with him as he was getting sicker, passed away a few years later, in her early eighties. “She was a tiny person with a very strong personality,” said Thetford, who along with other friends of Faygele, made it a point to spend time with Miriam after Faygele passed away. “She truly enjoyed sarcasm and irony. But she was a totally willing spirit. She was an organizer and a person who has really strong politics. And I think Faygele got her politics and her kind of willingness to just go out there and do things.”

Though Faygele’s friends and family don’t exactly agree on how his life ended, they are pretty much in accord when it comes to what he’d make of the current fight over gay marriage in Washington state—a fight that, at this point, even features Lloyd Hara, the man who back in 1970 refused Faygele a marriage license. Now the King County Assessor, Hara has become a champion of gay marriage, calling it “an overdue step to right an injustice,” and pointing out: “My eldest daughter is a lesbian and has been in a committed relationship with her partner for years.” He walked his daughter down the aisle on her wedding day in Vermont and hopes that soon “parents will be able to do that right here in Washington state.”

Barwick said the tipping point the culture has reached on gay marriage “makes me cry sometimes—just feeling good, going, ‘Wow, that worked.’ ” But while Faygele would be pleased, too, Barwick said, “He’d be out on the next fight. He’d be thinking, ‘This one’s fine, this one’s cooking just great,’ so he’d be out on the next one. … It wouldn’t be his entire focus anymore. He’d be looking down the road.”

“Paul’s right,” Haggerty said. “He probably would be more bored than not on the specific issue of gay marriage. He’d already been there, done that a long time ago. As soon as an issue became popular with the Democrats, he was done and ready for the next thing. He was always on the cutting edge. He could smell the cutting edge light-years before the general population, and usually before any of us. That’s where he shined.”

Faygele himself gave a hint of what he might think today. Asked during that 1995 interview whether he planned on leading another gay marriage lawsuit, he responded: “I personally wouldn’t. I would leave it to other people. I mean, there are people in committed relationships, who are open about it. It’s their turn.”

He continued: “Gay politics is not my only politics. It needs to align with other groups and overthrow the whole goddamn system. The system is set up not to work for minorities. It’s set up not even to work for most of the majority, but it buys them off by giving them some more privileges. It needs to work with racial and ethnic minorities, with any disenfranchised peoples. And it needs to get beyond being Democrat and Republican. I haven’t voted Democrat, I don’t think, ever, for president. Neither party is going to do what we need. They’re not going to bring about fundamental change, and that’s what we need to have. We need a society that really is going to include people on the basis of, ‘You exist, you have inherent worth because of it, and you have a right to live, you have a right to health care.’ I mean, AIDS is only one indication of how bad off we are. We’re the only industrialized country in the world that doesn’t have nationalized health care. We have an infant mortality rate, especially in the South Bronx, that makes third world countries look good. And yet they manage to buy us off—us, the larger gay community—by promising us a little bit of this, a little bit of that. … We can’t work through that system the way it stands.”

Eli Sanders is an associate editor at The Stranger and the winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. His website is

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