Derik's Column

By Derik Cowan
December 1995

Prayers for Bobby, or The Book That Was Almost About Me

So I was wandering around New York City around Pride last June with my friend Jessica, and we came upon this book in a bookstore we dropped by. Jessica said she had been meaning to buy it for me for a while, and then proceeded to buy it. It's not a hard read, but it took me a couple of days to get through it as it brought back a lot of things that I hadn't dealt with in a long time.

For those of you who don't know, Prayers for Bobby is the story of a young man from a fundamentalist background who kills himself, and then how his mother comes to grips with her son's gayness and suicide. The mother eventually becomes a national advocate for the rights of gay youth, and the end of the book has a short discussion of several programs for gay youth in the USA. The book is extremely good at capturing both the fundamentalist Christian voice that leads to the young man's suicide and the importance that a family can play in a life.

I found myself reading this in some ways from the other side and in other ways as what could have happened. I too, can remember vividly my struggles as a teen in a conservative Baptist church, struggling to find a way to bridge the gap between what I knew to be true--that my homosexuality was integral to me, and what I had always been taught--that homosexuality is one of the worst possible sins I could commit. Fortunately, I think, I was too afraid of losing my image as the perfect Christian boy who taught Sunday School and sang in the Choir to ever talk to anyone about my sexuality or struggles with it, because that saved me from having to take on the full brunt of fundamentalist hatred at a point in time when I wasn't ready to deal with it.

When my parents found out I was gay, they gave me a choice: either stay with them, see a counselor, drop out of school, and become straight, or leave. In my personal construction of that story, I like to forget that there was ever a choice there, because that way I can forget the tug on my soul to accept what they offered: a chance to be "normal" and avoid the hatred of the people who had made up my life. There was an instant, actually a rather long instant, in which everything that I had been taught to be pulled me toward my parents and their plans to straighten me out, an instant during which for the first time in 3 years I doubted the inherent nature of my sexuality and almost stayed with them. In the end, what pulled me away was not my acceptance of who I was or a return to the belief that I couldn't change my sexuality, but rather an overwhelming refusal to give up the education that I had worked for all of my life. I refused to give up not my sexuality, but my education at Amherst.

As of August 3, I had been separated from my parents for a year. I hardly ever hear from them anymore. Finally the Post Office is forwarding my mail to school, and I'm looking into a legal way to relieve my parents of any fiscal responsibility which they still bear. I'm going to PFLAG meetings here in Amherst with some hope that they may help me find a way to reach my parents, but more importantly with a hope that I can help others at the meetings who are struggling with their child or relative's sexuality to understand how important their support is. I've always been the sort who can pull through anything, but I know there are a lot of people out their who aren't me and couldn't make it on their own, so if I can keep even one other young person from having to go through what I have, I'll do anything I can.

But what about if I had stayed home? My father said to me that if I stayed in the homosexual lifestyle that I was taking the easy way out, but if I stayed with them and fought it, I would be showing once again how brave I could be in the face of overwhelming obstacles, and the thing is that he sincerely believed that. For a while I believed it, too. For most of the month of August, I lived with this Navy guy in his apartment and allowed myself to be used as bait to attract guys for him. I suppose in a lot of ways I didn't have much choice, seeing as I had to live somewhere, but at the time, I felt that if I was only brave enough, I could go home. I was simply being a coward and running away from my problems, and so I deserved to be treated like a commodity. It took meeting my friend Kurt towards the end of August for me to realize that I was wrong.

I remember reading one of my old online posts about a letter that I had received from my mom that had thrown me into such a depression that I hidden from the world for a day. Judging from the fact that a mere letter from somewhere far away could throw me, I wonder how long I would have lasted if I had stayed home and been subjected to that sort of abuse on a daily, personal basis. Oh, I'm sure there would have been that early optimism as we started out on the straightening process, but how long would that have lasted? A couple of weeks, or a month or two at the most? How long before I was sneaking out of the house and running down to the local rest area cruising spot, or secretly calling my gay friends in the area? How long before I was wallowing in an intense self hatred that I hadn't felt in years, and couldn't pretend that the people around me didn't also hate me, or hate my "problem?" How long could I have lasted before having to run away, or before I killed myself? Would I even be alive today? I don't really think so.

I know my parents take a lot of blame from me for my problems, and I think a great deal of it is true. I still can't believe that they would hold their religious beliefs in higher regard than their own flesh and blood, and I don't know that I will ever be able to forgive them for this year or the next or however many occur before we are reunited. At the same point, while the religious beliefs of my parents have caused them to be fairly horrible people of late, I have to say that in the end much of the reason that I've survived everything that I have has been because of the way they raised me.

While ostensibly I was taught about man's sinful, evil nature, God's control of all events, God's wrathful nature, and all sorts of debilitating religious trash, all that was sort of placed on a distant, universalist background. Personally, my parents instilled in me a confidence in myself, in the inherent goodness I held, and in my own self worth. I was continually told to go out and get what I deserved, that anything I wanted and worked for I could achieve, and to value my own judgment. Because of the way my parents raised me, I was able to accept myself as a good person despite the fact that I was something the church said was evil, and from there was able to understand that the church was wrong. And it was because my parents instilled in me a sense of self worth and a sense that I could do whatever I wanted that I've had the strength to strike out on my own and survive this past year.

Having read Prayers for Bobby helped me to appreciate this even more, for it seemed as if in Bobby's life, the overriding force was not personal self worth but the desire to blend and conform with the group in spite of the self, and that made for a lot of self hatred that I was able to get past.

At the end of the book, I made a mental list of things I was grateful for, as they've kept me alive:

  • The fact that I didn't tell anyone in my church about my struggles with my sexuality until they were basically over and I had the strength to stand on my own.
  • My inherent sense of self worth that told me that even if my being gay was a bad thing, I still deserved more than what my parents offered me as an alternative to leaving and finding a way to get through Amherst by myself.
  • The fact that I found/had a supportive gay network to turn to when everything else I had lived for crumbled around my feet.
  • My survival instinct.
  • My dad's somewhat skeptical view of the church which kept me from seeing it as a monolith with a monopoly on universal truth.
  • My basic view of myself as a basically good person no matter what others may say.

    There are many more things that I could say, but I think that's enough for now, especially since this article was to be about the book and has become increasingly about me. Anyway, if you haven't read it already, I would highly recommend reading this book. I mean, I haven't even gotten into how much the sections about the mother's struggle towards understanding her son affected me, although it goes something along the lines of the way I almost start crying at least once in just about every PFLAG meeting when I see how wonderfully accepting most of the parents there are, and how eager the rest are to at least try and understand.

    It gives me hope that someday my parents, too, will be able to accept me for who I am, and that hope only boosts my desire to live.

    Derik K. Cowan, 20, is a full time student at Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where he is studying Theater, Dance, and English. He can be reached online at dkcowan@amhux4.amherst.edu.
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