Wednesday, October 20, 2010

For Spirit Day, "Prayers for Bobby"

I wrote this article while a staff writer for The Associated Press. It moved on the wire on Aug. 30, 1996, for release by newspapers on Labor Day weekend. I'm reprinting it here in honor of Spirit Day (today), which is intended to raise awareness to prevent anti-gay abuse.

A Mother's Change of Heart About Her Gay Son's Suicide

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – Scared and full of self-hatred, Bobby Griffith took his mother’s advice and prayed his homosexuality would be healed by God.

In his diary, the teen-ager wrote, “Am I going to Hell? That’s the gnawing question that’s always drilling little holes in the back of my mind … Lord, I want to be good … I need your seal of approval.”

On Aug. 27, 1983, at the age of 20, Bobby flipped backwards off the edge of a freeway overpass and toppled into the path of a speeding truck. His suicide became the genesis for a book about his mother’s change of heart over the roots of her son’s homosexuality.

In “Prayers for Bobby,” veteran journalist Leroy Aarons tells how Mary Griffith came to decide three years after her son’s death that God “had not healed Bobby because there was nothing wrong with him.”

Aarons, formerly a foreign correspondent and editor at The Washington Post and The Oakland Tribune, is founder and president of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.

He came across excerpts of Bobby’s diary in the San Francisco Examiner, which published a 16-day series on gays and lesbians in America.

“My instinct was to grab hold of the boy who was writing these words and shout, ‘No, Bobby! You’ve got it all wrong. You’re OK. It’s the others who are crazy with ignorance!’”

His book, to be published by HarperCollins of San Francisco, begins like a family portrait in which Bobby, his parents, his two sisters and his brother talk movingly about their love for each other as well about as their misunderstandings. It ends with Mrs. Griffith’s transformation into a gay rights activist and a cataloging of recent landmarks in that campaign.

Details are layered to create middle-class suburban family-life scenes that ring so true they may be haunting to readers of similar backgrounds. But Mrs. Griffith’s religious fervor juxtaposed against Bobby’s secret agony make this family’s story particularly poignant and dramatic.

At first, Bobby tells only his diary his adolescent dreams are about men. He overhears conversations at home and at church that hurt.

“They’ve said they hate gays, and even God hates gays, too,” Bobby confided to his diary. “That really scares me when they talk that way because now they are talking about me.”

Bobby ultimately is broken by a raging frustration at a God who won’t “heal” him and a mother who won’t accept him as he is, but the focus of the story is Mrs. Griffith’s shifting perspective on the psychological collapse.

“Bobby’s death was the direct result of his parents’ ignorance and fear of the word ‘gay,’” Mrs. Griffith wrote after much soul-searching and Bible study, guided by a pastor of a church accepting of gays and lesbians.

She is portrayed as the quintessential homebody, whose shyness and lack of self-possession make her an unlikely spokesperson for a movement that draws venomous opposition. But Aarons writes that her lack of polish makes her seem more genuine, and her first-person narratives let audiences see only a boy who needed unconditional love and a well-meaning mother who failed him.

Mrs. Griffith wrote in a letter to her son after his death, "You were the apple of God’s eye just as you were. If we had only known.”