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.