A Lavender Look at the Temple – a gay and lesbian perspective of Peoples Temple – is making its last call for interviewees as it heads for publication in 2006.
More than three years in the making since its inauspicious start as a 700-word essay, the project has evolved into a book-length work that explores the lives of more than a dozen members of Peoples Temple who happened to be gay or lesbian. It is in the context of these life stories that the larger story of Peoples Temple and Jonestown unfolds. At the same time, these stories introduce the reader to a unique perspective of Peoples Temple that has been unexplored in the research done on the church in the past 27 years.
A Lavender Look also analyzes the church’s relationship with the emerging political gay community in the Bay Area during the late seventies. A study of letters written to Jim Jones from assassinated gay leader, Harvey Milk, as well as interviews with former Milk aides and other gay leaders from the time completes the project.
Although the experiences of the people profiled in Lavender Look were not so different from those of their heterosexual counterparts – in that everyone was expected to abstain from sexual contact – lesbians and gay men played an active part throughout the history of Peoples Temple. The Temple had a very pro-gay public agenda, supporting gay teachers who were under attack at the time, and fielding a speaker at the gay and lesbian pride parade. A number of gay men and lesbians found a welcoming home in Peoples Temple, a commentary on the level of rejection and treatment of gay people at that time in America, even in San Francisco. This public pro-gay image contrasted sharply at times with the private Temple experience, where people signed statements confessing to homosexual acts to be used against them if they ever chose to leave the group. The Lavender Look tries to weave through the confusion by commenting on the contradictions and getting to the root of the intentions behind the contact between Peoples Temple and the gay and lesbian community.
Gay and lesbian stories are peppered throughout the greater Temple story. Edith Cordell was with Jim Jones from the early Indiana days; Garry Lambrev was the first to join the church after the church moved to Ukiah, California. Loretta Cordell and Deanna Wilkinson were a public couple who literally made music together. Linda Mertle grew up in the Temple, giving voice from a youth’s perspective. Teresa King organized the library in both San Francisco and Jonestown. Pat Grunnett and Diane Lundquist took pride in their teaching jobs in the jungle community. Vern Gosney and Monica Bagby both left the commune with Leo Ryan giving voice to those who wanted to leave but who were too afraid to speak out. Still others, like Don Beck, who were living in California at the time of the tragedy, offer a unique perspective on the loss in Jonestown and the reaction to surviving temple members.
The experience of Don Beck, who only recently agreed to be interviewed, demonstrates why it is important for this project to hear as many voices as possible before its completion. Don was in Jonestown in the early days, and remembers the cooperation and dreams of the people who were building a town in the jungle. He also explains the experience of people, including family members, leaving for Jonestown and what it was like to stay in the States, anticipating the call to go down to join their comrades. Also, his perspective of the unfolding tragedy and the official dissolving of the church has yet to be explored in print. How did the surviving Temple members endure? How did they handle the grief of the loss from the tragedy coupled with the ostracism they faced from community members, especially the relatives of those who died in Jonestown? The author is especially grateful that Don and the other gay men and lesbians who were interviewed were willing to come forward and share their historic life stories.
(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.)