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Remembering a gay rights trailblazer you may have never heard of

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On today's StoryCorps, we unveil a new theme, which you're hearing now, and also a different veteran's story. In the 1970s, John Singer left the Army and changed his name to Faygele Ben-Miriam. His friends, Patrick Haggerty and Ronni Gilboa, remember him.

PATRICK HAGGERTY: In Yiddish, Faygele means little bird. But it was a pejorative for effeminate men. And my friends introduced me to him. He was actually quite polite in his first meeting. But he wasn't famous for his politeness.

RONNI GILBOA: No.

HAGGERTY: He was famous for his directness.

GILBOA: Well, yeah. He didn't bull****.

HAGGERTY: Yeah. And he wanted to agitate.

GILBOA: And he was good at it.

HAGGERTY: And he was very good at it. Faygele got a job working as a secretary in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Well, you know, he had a dress that was navy blue. And he wore that dress everywhere.

GILBOA: Well, he was a secretary. Any bags or high heels?

HAGGERTY: Yeah. Right.

(LAUGHTER)

HAGGERTY: No, but I'm pretty sure he had a wallet on him somewhere.

(LAUGHTER)

HAGGERTY: He made sure that dress was short enough to be disgraceful. It was like, this is who I am. And if it offends you, that's too damn bad. Well, he soon became indispensable in that office. But Washington, D.C., mucky-mucks caught wind of the fact that there was an open homosexual. And they insisted that he be fired. He filed suit. And he ultimately won. And he set a precedent. I mean, he broke the bank on the federal civil service not allowing homosexuals to work. He got a big, fat settlement. And he spread it around because Faygele was one of the most gracious people. You know, he told me for decades, I don't want to be here. I don't want to be on this Earth. This is an ugly place. The society that we lived in compared to the society that he wished to build were so far apart. It just broke his heart. He told me, I am here, so I'm going to set it right as much as I can.

GILBOA: He took risks that other people wouldn't dare.

HAGGERTY: Why he was unknown is a mystery because he was really a power to be reckoned with for decades.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Patrick Haggerty and Ronni Gilboa remembering their friend Faygele Ben-Miriam, who died in 2000. Their conversation will be archived at the Library of Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jey Born
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