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June 5: Faygele ben Miriam

June 5, 2014
Photo by Geoff Manasse

Faygele ben Miriam (John F. Singer, pictured here in a photo by Geoff Manasse), who filed one of the first gay marriage lawsuits in the U.S. after being denied a marriage license in Seattle in 1971, died of cancer at 56 on this date in 2000. The New York born-and-raised Singer came out in the early 1960s, and changed his name to Faygele ben Miriam (Little Bird/Faggot, Son of Miriam) in 1973. After being fired for wearing women’s clothes and being obviously “out” at his job as a typist at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, he sued the EEOC (with the help of the ACLU) and won reinstatement and back pay from the U.S. Supreme Court in a decision that prompted the EEOC to begin enforcing prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of sexual preference. Ben Miriam was a conscientious objector medic in the U.S. Army, served on the National Board of the New Jewish Agenda, worked with the International Jewish Peace Union, and was active in Kadima, the progressive Jewish community of Seattle. “And he spoke for millions,” observes Evan Wolfson, leader of Freedom to Marry, “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.”

“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 twenty 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?’”—Jamie Pedersen, Tablet