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Prayers for Bobby

September 11, 2015

PFBTrue story of Mary Griffith, gay rights crusader, whose teenage son committed suicide due to her religious intolerance. Based on the book of the same title by Leroy Aarons

In “Prayers for Bobby,” Mary Griffith is a devout Christian who raises her children with the conservative teachings of the Presbyterian Church. However, when her son Bobby confides to his older brother he may be gay, life changes for the entire family after Mary learns about his secret. While Bobby’s father and siblings slowly come to terms with his homosexuality, Mary believes God can cure him of what she considers his ‘sin’ and persuades Bobby to pray harder and seek solace in church activities in hopes of changing him. Desperate for his mother’s approval, Bobby does what is asked of him, but through it all, the church’s apparent disapproval of homosexuality causes him to grow increasingly withdrawn and depressed. Guilty over the pain he is causing Mary, Bobby moves away, yet hopes that some day his mother will accept him. His subsequent depression and self-loathing intensifies as he blames himself for not being the ‘perfect’ son and is driven to suicide. Faced with their tragedy, Mary begins to question her faith when she receives no answers from her pastor concerning her devastating loss. Through her long and emotional journey, Mary slowly reaches out to the gay community and discovers unexpected support from a very unlikely source. The film is based on the 1995 Leroy Aarons book of the same name.

 

Mary Griffith: Homosexuality is a sin. Homosexuals are doomed to spend eternity in hell. If they wanted to change, they could be healed of their evil ways. If they would turn away from temptation, they could be normal again if only they would try and try harder if it doesn’t work. These are all the things I said to my son Bobby when I found out he was gay. When he told me he was homosexual my world fell apart. I did everything I could to cure him of his sickness. Eight months ago my son jumped off a bridge and killed himself. I deeply regret my lack of knowledge about gay and lesbian people. I see that everything I was taught and told was bigotry and de-humanizing slander. If I had investigated beyond what I was told, if I had just listened to my son when he poured his heart out to me I would not be standing here today with you filled with regret. I believe that God was pleased with Bobby’s kind and loving spirit. In God’s eyes kindness and love are what it’s all about. I didn’t know that each time I echoed eternal damnation for gay people each time I referred to Bobby as sick and perverted and a danger to our children. His self esteem and sense of worth were being destroyed. And finally his spirit broke beyond repair. It was not God’s will that Bobby climbed over the side of a freeway overpass and jumped directly into the path of an eighteen-wheel truck which killed him instantly. Bobby’s death was the direct result of his parent’s ignorance and fear of the word gay. He wanted to be a writer. His hopes and dreams should not have been taken from him but they were. There are children, like Bobby, sitting in your congregations. Unknown to you they will be listening as you echo “amen” and that will soon silence their prayers. Their prayers to God for understanding and acceptance and for your love but your hatred and fear and ignorance of the word gay, will silence those prayers. So, before you echo “amen” in your home and place of worship. Think. Think and remember a child is listening.
PFB 2Mary Griffith: I won’t have a gay son.
Bobby Griffith: Then mom, you don’t have a son.
Mary Griffith: Fine.
Mary Griffith: To all the Bobbys and Janes out there, I say these words to you as I would my own precious children. Please don’t give up hope on life, or yourselves. You’re very special to me, and I’m working very hard to make this life a better and safer place for you to live in. Promise me you’ll keep trying. Bobby gave up on love, I hope you won’t. You’re always in my thoughts.
Jeanette: They should love the son no matter what the sin. Hey, that’s good! I’m gonna start my own bible.
 

Mary Griffith: I know now why God didn’t heal Bobby. He didn’t heal him because there was nothing wrong with him.
Psychiatrist: A lot of times, confusions like Bobby’s can be caused by a distant father or an overbearing mother.
Robert Griffith: Well, I had both and I am fine.

In 1983, Bobby Griffith killed himself at the age of 20 by doing a back flip off a freeway overpass.  Bobby was a gay teen who grew up in religious household.  Bobby never found acceptance within his family, particularly from his mother, Mary Griffith.

Bobby left diaries that are quoted in Aarons’ book.  Bobby wrote: “I’ve overheard (family members).  They’ve said they hate gays, and even God hates gays, too.  Gays are bad, and God sends bad people to hell.  It scares me when they talk that way because now they are talking about me.”

In today’s San Francisco Chronicle article about this film, Mary Griffith, now 74, said, “I didn’t listen to my conscience.  I was entrenched.  But I don’t live with the guilt anymore because I realized that I was truly ignorant.  It wasn’t something I did out of malice. So, I can forgive myself for that.”

Following her son’s death by suicide, Mary blamed herself which took her on a journey to understanding, redemption and transformation.  She became an advocate for gay teens and spokeswoman for the Diablo Valley Chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

In the epilogue to Aaron’s book on which this film is based there is a story of another mother  with a gay son not far away from Mary Griffith, our Mitzi Henderson.  Mitzi serves as an Elder at First Presbyterian Church, First Presbyterian Church, Palo Alto, CA, a More Light Church.  Mitzi has served as the Co-Moderator of the MLP National Board of Directors and as President of National PFLAG.

The diary that he kept for the last two years of his life reveals a tortured soul. Tortured by passions he had been taught were sinful. Tortured by the bondage of what he called “society’s rules.” Tortured by fear of hell. “Gays are bad,” he wrote, “and God sends bad people to Hell…. I guess I’m no good to anyone, not even God. Sometimes I feel like disappearing from the face of this earth.”

The Griffiths attended Walnut Creek Presbyterian Church in Walnut Creek, California. There, Mary said, the ministers and the congregation were clear that homosexuals were sick, perverted, and condemned to eternal damnation. “And when they said that,” Mary recalls, “I said, ‘Amen.'”

For her part, Mary just knew that homosexuality was “an abomination to God.” And even before she knew Bobby was gay, she conveyed her feeling to him in no uncertain terms. She remembers in sadness one incident that occurred when Bobby was fourteen. He had introduced her to a friend of his, a young girl. For some reason, Mary had loaned the girl a coat. Later, Mary learned that the girl had once had a lesbian encounter, and found herself unable to wear the coat again herself. “You can’t love God and be gay,” she told Bobby.

At about the same time, Bobby told his brother he was gay. Two years later, his brother told their parents. That night, the family was up until 4 A.M. talking and crying. They all agreed Bobby was a sinner, that he had to be cured by prayer and Christian counseling. Mary told him he had to repent or God would “damn him to hell and eternal punishment.” She had faith that God would come to Bobby’s rescue, but only if he read his Bible.

The Christian counselor recommended prayer and suggested that Bobby spend more time with his father. But Bobby’s diary revealed that nothing was changing. “Why did you do this to me, God?” he wrote. “Am I going to hell? I need your seal of approval. If I had that, I would be happy. Life is so cruel and unfair.”

His mother kept telling him he could change. “It seems like every time we talked, I would tell him that,” she says. “I thought Bobby wasn’t trying in his prayers.” When Bobby became more withdrawn, she simply chalked it up to God’s punishment. “Now,” she says, I look back and realize he was just depressed.”

When Bobby was twenty, in desperation the Griffiths decided he should move to Portland, Oregon, and live with a cousin. At first, the move seemed to help. He worked as a nurse’s aide in a senior citizens’ home and developed something of a social life. But the depression returned and deepened. A few months later, in his diary, he cursed God and added, “I’m completely worthless as far as I’m concerned. What do you say to that? I don’t care.” Again and again, he emphasized the shame and self-blame he felt over his sexual orientation. “I am evil and wicked. I am dirt,” he wrote. “My voice is small and unheard, unnoticed, damned.”

One Friday night in August 1983, Bobby had dinner with his cousin. She noticed that he seemed thoughtful, perhaps depressed. He seemed to want to talk about something, but said little. Then he left, saying he was taking a bus to go dancing downtown.

Early the next morning, two men driving to work noticed a young man, later identified as Bobby, on an overpass above a busy thoroughfare. As they described the next few moments, the boy walked to the railing, turned around, and did a sudden back flip into mid-air. He landed in the path of an eighteen-wheeler.

Bobby’s body was return to Walnut Creek for funeral services in the Presbyterian church. The minister told the mourners that Bobby was gay, and suggested that his tragic end was the result of his sinning.

Later, the Griffiths met with their pastor for grief counseling. In her despair, Mary was seeking ways to atone for the loss of Bobby. She told the pastor she knew there were “other Bobbys out there” and asked how she could help them. The pastor merely shrugged his shoulders—and Mary never again returned to that church.

However, she did not lose her sense of religion. Her speech resonates with the tones of spiritual awareness. But she has found a very different God from the one she worshiped at Walnut Creek Presbyterian. She reread her Bible with fresh eyes, and sought out secular books about homosexuality. She concluded that there was nothing wrong with Bobby, that “he was the kind of person God wanted him to be…an equal, lovable valuable part of God’s creation.” She says now, “I helped instill false guilt in an innocent child’s conscience.”

Bobby Griffith’s fate is not uncommon among gay youth. One report chartered by the government suggests that gay adolescents are nearly three times more likely than other teens to attempt suicide. Some 30 percent of all youth suicides, it says, can be traced to the pressures generated by “a society that stigmatizes and discriminates against gays and lesbians.”

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From → Film, Sexuality

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