Everybody is gay. All men are homosexual and all women are lesbians. People wrapped up in heterosexual relationships are not mature enough to deal with this. This leads to domestic violence, and the abuse and abandonment of women. Gays and lesbians who are “out” have faced suffering and ostracism, therefore they are empathic to the treatment of poor people and racial minorities. Gays and lesbians are the most loyal people in the movement.
Preached from the pulpit since the mid-sixties, these words were often heard in Peoples Temple meetings and services. But what did it mean? What was Jim Jones saying beyond the obvious? Who was the message for? Almost every book, movie or play written about Peoples Temple mentions that Jones preach this philosophy. The sentiment is so absurd on its face that there is nothing to analyze. It’s an obvious example of Jones’ depravity. What more is there to say? He was obviously nuts.
However gay and lesbian Temple members heard something else in the words “everyone is gay.” They heard, “you are equals.” Peoples Temple was one of the very few churches in the 60s and 70s that maintained a policy of true acceptance. Gays in Peoples Temple were not just accepted, they were just like everyone else. This might not seem that significant. But if gays and lesbians thought they were somehow defective at other churches or within their families, if they had not been encouraged to be themselves, the acceptance at Peoples Temple would have been a welcomed experience. One gay Temple survivor called the experience, “empowering.”
In most churches in America, gays and lesbians pray in silence. They are members of communities – their lifelong friends, their support systems, their teachers, and their families – who had a hostile attitude toward gay and lesbian people. And when people say things about gays, they stand in silence. Some join in the ridicule. They lie. They start lying to their families, to their friends, to themselves. Always afraid someone might find out and that they will be ostracized.
Then there was Peoples Temple. When gays and lesbians came to Peoples Temple, they not only heard Jones’ philosophy on everyone being gay, but they also found an all-accepting community. A community where being gay did not impact how you were perceived by the other congregants. No judgment, just acceptance. And just like that, the one thing that had been a burden, a focus, now seemed almost irrelevant.
When gays are in a community hostile to them, their gayness becomes a central issue. “Is he or isn’t he? Has she ever dated a boy?” But at Peoples Temple, gayness was not a focus. Gays and lesbians did not have to spend their time hiding and on guard. They were free to just leave that behind and start exploring other aspects of life. It was spiritual freedom. It was true acceptance.
This message spread beyond the doors of Peoples Temple. Gays and lesbians attended meetings and supported the church’s activities. As the gay community became more politically active, it looked to outside allies and support. When Harvey Milk ran for City Supervisor he not only had the support of Peoples Temple but also the firemen’s union and the Chinese Political Action Committee. The Temple made sure that people walked the streets campaigning for Harvey, forging a relationship between the supervisor and the church that has yet to be truly explored. After the deaths in Jonestown, Milk was quoted in The New York Times as saying, “Jonestown did not work, I don’t know maybe it did.”
There were gays and lesbians in every aspect of Temple life. Some joined with Jones in Indiana. The first person to join in Ukiah was gay. The lead soloist had an open relationship with the organist. Gays and lesbians in Jonestown worked on the construction crews, the fields, and all aspects of Jonestown. A gay man was shot on the tarmac with Leo Ryan. Gays and lesbians survived in Georgetown and San Francisco. Together these stories comprise a presently-unexplored aspect of Peoples Temple. The fact that a gay perspective has been ignored to date is no surprise. But it does offer a unique, uninterpreted, untainted perspective on the Temple.
Some researchers argue that Jones’ positive gay agenda had more to do with recruiting young gay people from the streets of San Francisco than a true commitment to homosexuals. And that may be true. Either way, the Temple’s image was very pro-gay in the gay community. The Temple marched in gay pride parades, Temple members spoke from the stage, the Temple opposed legislation against gay teachers and donated money to a gay couple in Colorado who were married by a gay city clerk and were trying to get the state to recognize their marriage. They opposed Anita Bryant’s “save the children” campaign. They supported Harvey Milk. If this was just a recruitment tool, it was impressive.
My understanding, however, is that it was more of the Temples attempt to play the equalizer. We are all poor, we are all field hands on the plantation called America; we are socialist, communist, gay. Everyone was the same. Gays too.
Many People Temple survivors have expressed concern that the exploration of whether or not people were gay is an invasion of their privacy, and that it is not clear how focusing on gay and lesbian members would impact people’s opinion of Jonestown. And that is true on some level. You have to play to your audience. But that does not mean that historians and researchers should not be exploring the relationships between the San Francisco gay community and Peoples Temple, as well as recording and recounting the Temple experiences of gay members. Certainly their Temple memories are not of less value than straight survivors. And is it really inconceivable that straight people could read about these people and learn more about the Temple and Johnstown?
The fact that the Temple allowed people to live out open lives during the 60s and 70s is worthy of research in itself. If the people of the Temple lived their lives in open relationships, and were accepted by the church community, then we should talk about that. It is not an invasion of their private lives if they are out. In fact, the opposite is true. Being out is about being public. It is about being as public in gay relationships as straights are in theirs. It is about putting your spouse’s photo on your desk at work without spawning gossip, and being free to talk about the drag benefit you went to over the weekend. It is about walking down the street holding your lover’s hand without getting your heads bashed in. It’s about being just like everyone else. Accepted.
That, in my mind, is what the people of Peoples Temple meant when they said, everybody is a homosexual.
(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.)