Gerry Faier, Labor Agitator Out Since 1938, Dies

Gerry Faier, Labor Agitator Out Since 1938, Dies

An agitator, rabble-rouser, and working-class Jewish lesbian, Gerry Faier found company and camaraderie among fellow labor organizers, the burgeoning gay and lesbian communities of Woodstock and Greenwich Village, and activists across many generations.

The backdrop of radical politics was the context out of which she worked to support her own needs as a single parent, as a poor daughter of immigrants who lied about her education to defraud the FBI in fighting for her own survival. Gerry joined the front lines of community protests, organizing her neighbors to fight for jobs and wages, participating in boycotts for better access to transportation and groceries, and eventually covering events as a journalist in the Yiddish press.

She came out as a lesbian in 1938, and met her lover, Ethel Cohen, in 1948. They were together for 40 years. In her own words, “I didn’t know I was looking for a girlfriend. But I was inquisitive my entire life, read a lot of books, talked to a lot of people, had a lot of experiences. This experience I never had — let’s try it. So we tried it — and I thought this is where I belonged all this time.”

This rich life would later be the impetus for Gerry’s community organizing work as an elder in the founding of SAGE: Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders. Gerry was perhaps most famous in the Jewish gay and lesbian world for an interview in Christie Balka and Andy Rose’s “Twice Blessed: On Being Gay or Lesbian and Jewish” (1987). The story she tells is one of the few about coming out in the 1930s to have been documented. Gerry was also featured in the Israeli television program “Ima Machlifa” and in an episode of the LGBT monthly public television magazine “In the Life.”

Like many of her generation, she rejected the orthodox Jewish practices of her mother’s house. But later in life, she returned to the synagogue, to New York City’s Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, because she wanted a lesbian to officiate at her funeral. Not one but two lesbian rabbis honored her memory at her funeral on February 1.

Over her decade of membership, Gerry shared her stories with congregants, staff, and rabbinical student interns who visited her regularly, and enjoyed Shabbat meals sent weekly by the shul. A voracious reader, writer, and lover of the library, she taught herself to read Hebrew by reading the siddur. In 2008, she celebrated her 100th birthday at CBST with a Shabbat service in her honor.

Born in 1908 to Polish immigrant parents Pauline and Jacob Minsky, Gerry was the third oldest of eight children. She was briefly married to a man and had two children, and is survived by her younger sister Bessie Minsky, her niece Sondra Berman, and many friends.

“Over 30 years ago, when no one was thinking seriously about the unique needs of LGBT older adults, a small group of dedicated activists founded SAGE,” said Michael Adams, that group’s executive director. “Our community owes these founders and earliest members, like Gerry Faier, enormous thanks for their pioneering work to improve the lives of LGBT elders.”

As Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, senior rabbi of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, noted, “We are proud that Gerry Faier was a long time member of CBST. She was unique, feisty, and outrageous to the end. We honor her as an elder and her memory will be for a blessing for all of us.” — Congregation Beit Simchat Torah