After three years of expanded research and extensive rewriting, A Lavender Look at the Temple: A Gay and Lesbian Perspective of Peoples Temple, is ready to go to the press. Initially intended as a 700-word article for a now-defunct magazine, Lavender Look has grown into a book-length project which explores the relationship between Peoples Temple and the gay and lesbian community of San Francisco.
Focusing on the biographies of over a dozen Temple members, Lavender Look offers a glimpse into their private lives within the communal church. The members range from an elderly woman who took care of other seniors, to a woman who turned down a singing career to be a diesel mechanic in Jonestown, and a woman who was severely beaten as a teen while in the church.
But these twelve were not alone. There were gay men and lesbians throughout Temple history. Some joined in the early days when the Temple was based in Indiana, others when the church moved to Ukiah, and still others when the Temple relocated to San Francisco. When the Temple moved again – this time to Jonestown – gays and lesbians worked on every aspect of the community. Gay men and women worked in the agricultural fields, in the clinic, in the school, in the library and on the security team. All but two of the community’s queer residents died on November 18, 1978.
The Temple had relationships with the gay community outside the church as well. It attracted the attention of a number of local Bay Area politicians, including Harvey Milk, the first elected gay man in California who would be murdered in his city hall office ten days after the deaths in Jonestown. Milk had a personal correspondence with Jim Jones and often attended Temple services.
As with many aspects of Peoples Temple, the position on gay men and lesbians is oftentimes contradictory. Queers were expected to abstain from sex, but that was true of straight couples as well. Sex was considered a distraction from the work need to complete their socialist vision; nevertheless, both gay and straight relationships developed. Jim Jones preached a philosophy that labeled all people queer, even as he exempted himself from that generalization. As uncomfortable as that message must have been for the straight members of the church, it must have been equally empowering for the gay men and women to actually think that everyone else was like them. This paradigm shift – why shouldn’t gay people think that everyone else is like they were? – was very progressive, even for the sexed-up seventies.
Sometimes the dynamic played out in interesting ways. For example, men who were caught having sex with a number of women were berated for behavior that was a result of their suppressed homosexual feelings. The playground rules specifically forbade teasing people for sexual preference, something unheard of in the other playgrounds in America where the words “fag” and “gay” are common insults even today. Most importantly gay and lesbian couples were treated with respect and accepted as equals, their relationships were openly acknowledged, and they were expected to care for children.
But not everything was positive. Many people signed statements confessing to homosexuality to be used as leverage if they ever decided to leave the church. The church’s apparent willingness to embarrass or humiliate someone publicly over the issue of homosexuality is inconsistent with its professed solidarity with the gay and lesbian community. And asking someone to “admit or confess” to homosexuality is far from empowering. And of course, by claiming heterosexual status solely for himself, Jones implies that being straight is the perfect form, and being gay is simply being human. None of this is very empowering for queer people.
Is a gay perspective of Peoples Temple important? Oftentimes gay men and lesbians are simply excluded from history. But as the gay and lesbian community becomes more defined in this country as a cultural minority, its history and perspective become of interest, first to queer people, then to people who are interested in the gay community or who study its impact on American society. With what appears to be an apparent bias for feel-good left leaning politics, it is little wonder that the socialist church was embraced by the fledgling gay community of San Francisco. A discussion of that relationship between two powerful political forces is of importance not only to gay and lesbian historians but also people interested in this period of San Francisco history.
A Lavender Look is still conducting interviews. Anyone interested in being interviewed can contact the author at Lavenderlook@aol.com. All information is confidential and will not be published without consent.
(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.)