Feature Cover Story

By Jeff Walsh, July 1995

Prayers for Bobby

A new book examines a gay son's suicide, and his mother's new life.

Bobby Griffith's four-year struggle with being gay and trying to live a Christian life ended on Aug. 27, 1983.

On that day, the twenty-year-old California man backflipped off a freeway overpass in Portland, OR., timing his leap so his body would be struck and killed by an oncoming tractor-trailer.

For four years before his death, his religious mother encouraged him to "cure" his homosexuality through prayer. Bobby also kept an extensive diary during those years, which chronicles his highs and lows.

Confusion and cures

What's wrong with me? I wish I could crawl under a rock. God, do you enjoy seeing me stumble around this world like a stupid idiot? I think you must. There's probably some kind of pill somewhere that would heal my brain or there's probably some kind of vitamin that I'm not getting enough of.
--- Bobby's diary entry for Sept. 28 1981

Prayers for Bobby, a new HarperCollins book written by Leroy Aarons chronicles Bobby's struggles and how his death served as a catalyst for his mother Mary.

"His mother was an extreme fundamentalist Christian who felt God was going to cure her son of homosexuality and badgered the boy for four years to cure himself through prayer," says Aarons, who is the former executive editor of the Oakland Tribune, and both the founder and current president of the National Lesbian Gay Journalists Association.

"She had made a terrible, terrible mistake," Aarons says. "The wonderful thing is, tragically, after his death she began to discover the error of her ways and she's now a crusader for gay kids."

Mary Griffith, 60, of Walnut Creek, Calif. says that she was only doing what she thought was right for her son.

"I certainly believed with all my being that homosexuality was something God was going to cure and that it was a condition that had to be cured," she says. "There were no if, ands or buts about it. That's all I had ever known.

"We loved Bobby and thought we were doing the right thing," she says.

Bobby got more and more depressed as he prayed for God to cure him. His mother says she always had faith that God would help her son. But when he killed himself, she couldn't understand why God would have allowed that. If Bobby died a gay man and being gay is an abomination to God, she felt God had passed her son over.

"She was a total unquestioning believer of the Bible," Aarons says. "When she found out her son was gay, she believed its condemnation of gay people as being sinful and damned. She tried to rescue her son from that fate."

Mary Griffith, who has another son and two daughters, now says the beliefs she was taught and blindly accepted as a devout Presbyterian prevented her from helping her son when he needed her.

"It was a terrible injustice," she says. "I find some comfort in knowing that I can't totally be held responsible for something I didn't know. There's an awful lot of ignorance in the church."

For a year and half after Bobby's death, Mary Griffith did a lot of "soul-searching" and investigation about homosexuality and the Bible.

"She couldn't accept that God allowed him to die rather than cure him," Aarons says. "She got an inkling that someone went wrong, since they had played by the book."

She eventually reached the conclusion that "Bobby wasn't healed because there was nothing wrong with him," she says. "It was perfectly normal and healthy for Bobby."

Internal struggles

Until Bobby was 13, Mary says he was fairly outgoing but then he began to withdraw, which she thought was "the normal teenage roller coaster thing with his emotions."

A "nature boy," she says he was always involved in outdoor activities and loved old movies.

When Bobby was 15, he told his older brother Eddie he was gay, but made him promise not to tell anyone. After Bobby unsuccessfully tried to kill himself with a bottle of Bufferin, Eddie broke his promise.

Mary Griffith says Bobby was "humiliated" that they knew he was gay.

Things got better for Bobby when he went to a junior college which had a gay group on campus. He dated and did have boyfriends, but his mother says he always fought a battle between what he felt in his heart and what he taught was proper.

"The thing with Bobby is that he could not separate from his religious teachings," she says, adding that he felt "anything positive about being gay was from Satan and it was not valid. The psychological terror just tormented him.

"He felt within himself he was a kind decent human being," she says. "He couldn't understand why he would be hated and why God would consider him an abomination."

She also says Bobby was very artistic and would probably have been a writer or journalist if he were alive today. His writing interests are evident in his diaries, which she estimates total over 400 pages. "Extensive excerpts" of his diary, which Aarons called "an extraordinary document chronicling his day to day existence," are found throughout the book.

Helping others

Mary Griffith says she hopes the book will "help kids understand their own parents and where they're coming from. The kids will hopefully find some benefit from our experience. "

Griffith, who runs a chapter of Parents, Friends and Family of Lesbians and Gays (P-FLAG) out of her home, says she enjoys helping kids deal with their sexuality. She helps them cope with the same feelings that led her own son to his death, and also teaches them to shield themselves from prejudice in an often cruel world.

"I think it's just a shame that they have to hear all that negative stuff out there," she says. "I'm really amazed at kids that do make it because of all the horrible stuff. I've always been told that if they can laugh until they're 25 they can make it."

Her message to queer kids, though, is to believe in their parents' love, despite how they may seem to view gays and gay issues.

"They need to really believe that their parents do love them, but that they're coming from a place of ignorance and fear," she says.

Griffith is so in tune with the gay community and gay issues that when a new parent comes to her support group meetings, she has to step back anymore and realize where they're coming from.

"It's really hard when parents come in here and they're so distraught and I'm like `What's all the fuss about?'" she says.

Aarons said that helping other gay kids also helps Griffith. "I think she's at greater peace than when she started," he says. "She realizes that she is able to help people and saved potentially many other lives. That brings her satisfaction."

Anew, but alone

With a government study estimating that 30 percent of all teen suicides are carried out by queer and questioning kids, Griffith also wonders why she is the sole voice for parents who have lost their gay children.

"There are many mothers out there whose sons have killed themselves," she says. "Where are they? It's been 12 years, and I'm the only one out here.

"I realize many are ashamed of their kids in both life and death," she says. "I just could not let Bobby die and say `God's will be done.'" The search that led Mary Griffith to the posthumous acceptance of her gay son also began her questioning other things in life.

"She's become an independent thinker after being a 1950s housewife," Aarons said. "She likes that new person, but you never get over the loss of a child."

Griffith says she no longer practices any organized religions, but still maintains her own spirituality.

"My basic belief now is that any ideology or creed that undermines our self-esteem or a human being is abusive," she says. "It's not worth tormenting a child and making them live in misery and pain. It's next to child abuse, and that's certainly what unknowingly happened to Bobby."

And teaching the lesson she painfully learned to other parents is something Griffith says she will do forever.

"Parents don't realize that they are their child's lifeline," she says. "Kids need that home base, that comfort at home. That really is all that matters."

Similar stories

Aarons said he was first taken with the Griffiths' story when he first read about it in 1989 in the San Francisco Examiner as part of a piece they were writing on gay life in America.

"I was absolutely taken with the poignancy of this story," he says. "She had made a terrible, terrible mistake. So, that really struck me as a story of hope that merges from tragedy. That interests me more than a sad tale."

"Prayers" is Aarons' first book. He says the hardest part about writing it was "finding my way to the heart of Bobby's motivation, and satisfying myself that his depression was truly a result of the way he internalized society's view of being gay, and that he wasn't just a depressed personality himself to start with."

Aarons admits that on many levels he also related to Bobby. "I grew up in a different era where things were even worse," Aarons says. "Suicide was never part of my repertoire, but I was extraordinarily isolated teenager with nobody to talk to about my sexual proclivity.

Aarons says it took him nearly 25 years to reconcile his sexuality. He now lives in Sebastopol, Calif., with his spouse of almost 15 years, Joshua Beneh.

"I survived," he says, "but I had to deal with it for a very long time."

The author, Jeff Walsh, may be contacted at jeff@oasismag.com.
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