He lived to tell

The Advocate/November 25, 2003
By Paul VanDeCarr

Openly gay Jonestown resident Vernon Gosney escaped the commune with three bullet wounds, but his 5-year-old son was not as lucky

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 full 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 consulted 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 and 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 delivery of their son, Mark. Devastated, estranged from his family and in-laws, and hooked on 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 and living communally with people from all different backgrounds. It satisfied this basic desire I had to connect with all humanity.

"The idea of Peoples Temple was that you had to be a good revolutionary," he adds. "All your personal desires-including your sexual orientation-were just selfish distractions from the revolutionary calling."

That standard, however, did not apply to Jones, who took both male and female lovers from among temple members. Gosney says Jones spoke of himself as the only true heterosexual and that he tried to demean everyone else by calling them homosexual. This was Jones's way of indulging his sexual desires and manipulating his followers, Gosney says. In addition to the name-calling, there were reports that the members were forced to donate to the church and that they were beaten when they disobeyed Jones's orders.

Gosney broke temple rules by having a life outside the temple, visiting the bars and bathhouses on a regular basis. "My being part of the gay scene allowed me to have a place in myself that didn't belong to Jim Jones or Peoples Temple," he says. "Being gay and out there was what helped save me."

He says the temple leadership considered him a "freak"- flamboyant, out, and now in a new relationship with a pre-op, male- to-female transsexual. But they tolerated him, he says, because they looked forward to receiving the money they hoped he would win in a negligence lawsuit he filed against Cheryl's doctors.

However, nearly five years after Gosney filed the lawsuit, an all-white jury ruled in favor of the doctors, essentially agreeing that Cheryl was "too black" for them to see that she wasn't getting enough oxygen during surgery. Gosney, who received no compensation as a result of the lawsuit, says tine verdict just underscored what Jones had been preaching about American society being corrupt and racist.

The best way to escape this corruption and racism, Gosney figured, was to go to Jonestown, a new society that a Peoples Temple vanguard was carving out of the jungle in the South American country of Guyana. "I wanted my son to grow up in a better place," he says. "I wanted to get off drugs. I wanted to help create this Utopia that Jim Jones had talked about, where people would live in harmony and peace."

He and Mark moved to Jonestown on March 19, 1978, Gosney's 25th birthday. The settlement was composed of residential cabins, a school, a rudimentary basketball court, a medical clinic, a central pavilion for meetings, and acres of farmland, all linked by a network of wooden walkways.

"Jonestown was like Peoples Temple, only more intense," says Gosney, who spent much of his day working in the fields. "There was a numbing amount of public violence," he adds, saying that anyone who did anything that wasn't considered for the good for the community was either beaten or isolated in a 4- by 6-foot underground box. Gosney, however, says he avoided punishment: "My plan was to be a perfect citizen and to show what a tough fag I could be."

There also were occasional "rehearsals" for mass suicide, which temple members called "white nights." They began with sirens prompting all residents to a mass meeting, where they were given glasses of red liquid to drink. According to some former residents, they didn't know if the liquid contained poison or not, but they were told that they would die within 45 minutes if it did.

"The white nights didn't seem real; they seemed like a ruse to root out the dissidents," Gosney says. "We know now what happened [later], but at the time it was an enormous thing to contemplate- the death of the entire community. I should have seen it coming, but I didn't. It's hard to explain the state of mind people were in. We were broken down." He exhibits palpable difficulty in discussing the subject. "As many times as I think about it, it's still staggering," he says.

Although he cultivated the image of a perfect resident, Gosney hated Jonestown from the start, and he began to share his desire to escape with a woman named Monica, whom he describes as "a big, brassy dyke, just like I like."

The official policy was that anyone who wanted to leave Jonestown was welcome to leave. But the reality was much different. Those who tried to escape were branded as traitors, beaten, or put into the isolation box. Even those who succeeded in escaping the commune faced trekking through miles and miles of jungle before reaching civilization.

But eight months after he arrived in Jonestown, Gosney and Monica finally found a break. Congressman Leo Ryan of California led a delegation of relatives and reporters to investigate charges that Jones was abusing temple members and keeping them in Guyana against their will. After Ryan's one-day investigation, the congressman gathered 16 Jonestown residents who wanted to leave with him and return to the United States; Gosney and Monica were among the 16. In his haste, Gosney left Mark behind, expecting that he would have the opportunity to pick him up later.

As Ryan, the defecting temple members, and the accompanying delegation prepared to board a plane at a nearby airstrip, they were ambushed by several Jones loyalists who opened fire, killing Ryan and four others. Gosney was shot twice in the abdomen and once in the leg, receiving serious internal injuries. Monica, who was shot twice in the back, also survived.

Paranoid, Gosney fled into the jungle, where he hid for several hours, slipping in and out of consciousness. Eventually a group of Guyanese men rescued him and took him into a tent filled with other survivors of the shooting. The next morning he was flown to a hospital in Puerto Rico.

It was several days before Gosney, who was still in the hospital, first read in a newspaper about what had happened at Jonestown. After the ambush at the airstrip, Jones gathered his followers. After making more than 270 children, including Mark, ingest cyanide- laced punch, the adults did the same. Jones is believed to have then killed himself with a gunshot. In the end, 912 people died.

"I was in deep, deep shock. The enormity of it was hard to take in," Gosney says. "It was as if somebody had said, 'I'm going to kill everyone on your block,' and then he did it."

After the shock, it was of course Mark's death that hurt him the most. "I was not in a clear state of mind when I decided to leave Mark in Jonestown," he says today. "I've gone back to that decision more than anything else. [Learning of his death] is still the most painful moment of my life."

When Gosney returned home to California several weeks later, he was met, he says, by "incredibly supportive" family and friends. Still, he was suicidal and struggled with alcohol and drug addiction. "The pain of living was sometimes too much," he says.

But he says that pain also was "the fire under my ass to change my life." In 1982 he moved to Hawaii, where he still lives.

An active hiker, 12-stepper, and volunteer with the Maui AIDS Foundation, he says his life is best summed up by the five letters on his car's license plate: ALIVE. "Because I've had so much loss in my life, I'm really grateful for my life," he says. "I'm glad to be alive. I mean, really alive."

"I wanted to help create this utopia that Jim Jones had talked about, where people would live in harmony and peace."

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