Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

He Lived to Tell: Openly Gay Jonestown Resident Vernon Gosney Escaped the Commune with Three Bullet Wounds, but His 5-Year-Old Son Was Not as Lucky

Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

He Lived to Tell: Openly Gay Jonestown Resident Vernon Gosney Escaped the Commune with Three Bullet Wounds, but His 5-Year-Old Son Was Not as Lucky

Article excerpt

The last time Vernon Gosney dreamed about Jonestown, things were the way they were, supposed to be have been. "It was a harmonious, supportive community. Everyone was building beautiful buildings," he says, describing the dream. "Jim Jones was a benevolent figure."

But Gosney's dream was a far cry from the Jonestown he last saw--on November 18, 1978. That day, Gosney was seriously wounded by three bullets that ripped through his body as he tried to escape the utopian communal settlement founded by Jones. Later that same day, more than 900 of his fellow residents were either murdered or committed suicide by cyanide poisoning. Gosney's 5-year-old son was among them.

"Jonestown seems like lifetimes away for me," Gosney says today. That may be because his life has transformed so much since then. He now lives in another kind of utopia, Hawaii, where he works as a police officer and volunteers as a fund-raiser for the Maui AIDS Foundation. He is out as gay, living with AIDS, and a survivor of Jonestown. At age 50, he finds his life equally divided in years between the time before and the time after that tragedy that has become known as the worst "cult disaster" in modern history.

Born in 1953 and raised in the San Francisco Bay area, Gosney came of age in one of the city's most turbulent eras. "It was a very exciting time politically, and it was a great time to be gay," he says, adding that he took hill advantage of the sexual freedom at its height in the city's vibrant gay bar scene. But being gay didn't stop him from falling in love with a woman, Cheryl Wilson, a former high school classmate and onetime Black Panthers member whom Gosney describes as "a survivor of the streets."

"She was irresistibly attractive," Gosney says of Wilson. "It was an awakening for me to see a woman in her power." Especially awakening, he explains, because his mother was an alcoholic and had been absent most of his life. At 19, Gosney, who had a decidedly open relationship with Wilson, married her. "We got married because we loved each other," he explains. "It was unconventional. But remember, this was the '70s."

As an interracial couple--Gosney white and Wilson black--the two faced discrimination from the start. Their families rejected them because of their relationship, and the first church they consuited about a wedding turned them down. But in 1971 the couple met Jones, a charismatic minister who led the Peoples Temple, an interracial religious congregation with core values of social service mid social justice.

Jones welcomed Gosney and Wilson into his fold, and soon the couple moved into the communal housing system the church had built in nearby Redwood Valley. Peoples Temple, the couple hoped, would provide them the accepting and politically progressive family they both lacked at home.

Tragedy brought Gosney deeper into Jones's fold in 1973, when Cheryl was left brain-dead by an overdose of anesthesia during a cesarean-section delively of their son, Mark. Devastated, estranged from his family and in-laws, and hooked oil drugs and alcohol, Gosney turned to Jones for help, hoping against hope that the divine powers the man claimed could heal his wife. He used photographs of Jones and oils--both of which Jones sold and promoted as having healing powers--on Cheryl, but to no avail. Eventually he turned his wife over to the care of her mother, and she died in 1980.

For the next several years, Gosney and Mark lived in several Peoples Temple communal houses around San Francisco, where Mark was primarily taken care of by an elderly lesbian named Edith, who also had charge of other Peoples Temple children. "Part of the philosophy [of Peoples Temple] was that family relationships are sick and need to be broken down," Gosney explains. "Still, Peoples Temple was a family, if a punishing family. It was an intense experience of coming together mad living communally with people from all different backgrounds. …

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