Harvey Milk’s name appears throughout San Francisco. A municipal railway station and plaza, a park and recreation building and one of the city’s most influential political clubs are all named in his memory. A local elementary school is known as the Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy, and the Eureka Valley Library is now called the Harvey Milk Branch. The theme for this year’s gay pride parade was “give them hope,” Milk’s inspirational rallying cry from gays and lesbians in San Francisco to their brothers and sisters living in rural America. The International Gay and Lesbian Historical Society is producing an extensive exhibit of Milk memorabilia which includes the blood-stained suit he was wearing when he and Mayor George Moscone were gunned down in San Francisco City Hall on November 27, 1978. Twenty-five years after his murder, Harvey Milk has been catapulted to the level of gay martyr. Without question, he has left his mark on San Francisco.
Despite all the exhibits and memorials of Harvey Milk throughout San Francisco, though, none of them acknowledges Milk’s relationship with Jim Jones and Peoples Temple.
Harvey Milk was able to draw large, diverse crowds during his campaigns, which evolved over time from focusing on the needs of small business owners to championing the politics of senior, poor and other disenfranchised people. As the first openly gay man elected in California, and one of the most prominent gay men in America, Milk’s murder galvanized a politically fractured and fledgling queer community. Longtime political opponents of Milk – and there were many – suppressed their deep-seated negativity, joined with Milk supporters and, over time, fashioned a deified image of him, as is evidenced by the Gay Historical Society’s exhibit which is titled “Saint Harvey.”
When Milk and Moscone were killed, San Franciscans were still reeling from the murder of Representative Leo Ryan and the news that hundreds of Jonestown residents, previously thought to have saved themselves by running into the jungle, were apparently willing participants in a suicide ritual. In the aftermath of their murders all mention of connections between Milk, Moscone and Jones were intentionally obscured. Out of respect for the politicians, their followers took all necessary steps to sever Milk and Moscone from the pariah Jones. It was not the only mass exodus of political support in the wake of the Jonestown tragedy. Politicians who once enjoyed volunteers, donations and votes from Peoples Temple, could not distance themselves from Jim Jones fast enough. Many of these people are still in politics today.
Because Milk and Moscone were murdered so soon after the Jonestown tragedy, there was immediate speculation that Peoples Temple was somehow involved. Ann Kronenberg, Milk’s hand- picked successor, told Milk biographer Randy Shilts, that when she first heard Milk was murdered, she thought Jim Jones was responsible. Rumors began to circulate (and some persist today) of obscure connections between Jim Jones and Milk’s murderer, Dan White. Vague rumors of a falling out between Milk and Jones also surfaced. One story has it that Milk asked Peoples Temple to remove his name from the church’s list of supporters when reports of violence and theft first came to light, and that he was outraged when the Temple failed to comply with his demand. Eventually, history settled on an official story: Jim Jones was a master manipulator who used unwitting local politicians to gain power for himself. The politicians, including Milk and Moscone, used Jones for volunteers and votes, while remaining personally distant and blissfully unaware of rumors of Temple violence, abuse, theft and even murder. The timing of Dan White’s murderous rampage was deemed coincidental.
However, upon closer inspection, it is clear that Harvey Milk was a strong advocate for Peoples Temple and Jim Jones during his political career, including the tumultuous year leading up to the Jonestown tragedy. Milk spoke at the Temple often, wrote personal letters to Jim Jones, contacted other elected officials on the Temple’s behalf, and used space in his weekly column to support the works of the Temple, even after the negative New West article went to press. Milk appeared in the pages of the Peoples Forum, the Temple newspaper, and received over fifty letters of sympathy from the residents of Jonestown when his lover, Jack Lira, killed himself in September 1978.
It is readily apparent from the letters and historical memorabilia that Milk and the Temple enjoyed a mutually supportive relationship until their concurrent deaths. Why then is the relationship such a secret, even taboo to discuss? The only biography of Milk to date, The Mayor of Castro Street, by Randy Shilts, downplays the Milk/Temple relationship, even going so far as to paint Milk as one of the countless people who cruelly ridiculed and ostracized the surviving Temple members and their supporters. Like most historians, Shilts opted for an image of an expedient politician, instead of truthfully portraying how Milk worked with Peoples Temple until the end of his life.
Enough time has passed since Milk’s brutal murder to reanalyze this relationship, to explore how and why Harvey Milk supported Peoples Temple. As people who hold Milk in high esteem, we should honestly and openly explore and reevaluate what we know about Peoples Temple, to see what it was about the church that appealed to Milk. Whether it was its pro-gay public persona, its support for embattled gay teachers, its opposition to anti-gay ballot measures, its active opposition to racism and sexism, the multiple stories throughout the pages of the Peoples Forum denouncing violence against gays and lesbians, or simply its acceptance of him and its continued support for his political campaigns – whatever the reason – Harvey Milk irrefutably supported Peoples Temple.
It may be understandable why in November 1978 the supporters of Milk would attempt to distance the newly martyred supervisor from the still-unfolding horrors of Jonestown. However, we as witnesses, historians, researchers and writers have an obligation to tell future generations the whole truth, as we understand it, to record as much documentation as possible and let the biases and subsequent interpretations transform over time. As Dr. Susan Stryker states in the curator’s statement of the Milk exhibit, “While I wanted to respect Harvey Milk’s legacy, I also wanted to suggest that in venerating him, we risk obscuring a great deal of other equally compelling gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender history.”
If Milk supported Peoples Temple, now is the pivotal time for us to unveil the truth. What we cannot do is let our animosity toward Jim Jones and our horror of Jonestown taint our understanding of the individuals who made up Peoples Temple, including their incredible community based work as well as their relationships with prominent people like Harvey Milk. We should challenge the image of Temple members as mindless, uneducated zombies, and instead, portray them as the passionate, loyal and committed people who inspired Harvey Milk. It is most important that we not participate in or settle for the revisionism and obfuscation that has passed for the historical account of this relationship to date.
The extent of Milk’s relationship with Peoples Temple may never be fully known. Certainly his murder, along with that of Mayor Moscone, was yet another blow to Temple survivors. Milk and Moscone were the two most powerful San Francisco politicians who maintained close ties to Jim Jones and Peoples Temple; they could have demanded an investigation into the murder of Leo Ryan and the Jonestown tragedy. When Jones tells the residents of Jonestown in the community’s last hours that the “folks in San Francisco won’t be idle over this,” he could have been referring, in part, to Milk and Moscone. Indeed, recently-uncovered research refutes the supposition that Jones ordered Dan White to execute Milk and Moscone; to the contrary, if there were any connection between the City Hall murders and Peoples Temple, it would clearly have been because Milk and Moscone were too closely tied to Jones and the Temple.
A Lavender Look at the Temple, scheduled to be published in early 2004, examines the connections between Harvey Milk and Peoples Temple as part of its consideration of the church’s internal and external relationship with gay men and lesbians. Reviewing letters from Milk, news clippings and first hand accounts, A Lavender Look not only pieces together this complex and obscured relationship, it also includes accounts from gay and lesbian Temple members and Jonestown survivors.
We are still conducting research for this project, and are still seeking gay or lesbian members of the church who are willing to be interviewed for their perspective. As gay men and lesbians ourselves, we understand and appreciate the difficulty of coming forward with information, and will abide by whatever conditions you stipulate before such an interview takes place. We ask you to contact Michael Bellefountaine at 415-864-6686 or ACTUPSF@hotmail.com.
(Editor’s note: Michael Bellefountaine was a frequent contributor to the jonestown report before his death in May 2007. His complete collection of writings for the site may be found here.
(A Lavender Look at the Temple was published in 2011 and is available through Amazon.)