He must have seen the large tractor trailer approaching from under the Couch Street overpass and timed the jump. Bobby executed a sudden and effortless back flip and disappeared over the railing. The driver tried to swerve, but there was no time Robert Warren Griffith, age twenty years and two months, had died instantly of massive internal injuries. Prayers for Bobby
Bobby Griffith was a young gay man who came out to his conservative (non-LDS) religious parents in his senior year of high school. He was a near-contemporary of mine; a kind, bright, sensitive young man who had been a devoted member of his parents church. Yet, he came to sense that there was something different about him. Something awful. Something he didnt want, but couldnt deny: he was attracted to men.
When he came out, his mother undertook an unrelenting campaign to change her son. She quoted scripture, assured her son that he could change if he really tried, bolstered by the teachings of her church and her understanding of the Bible. He tried, but came to hate himself more than ever. Eventually, the seemingly irreconcilable conflict within him drove him to suicide. He simply couldnt live with himself anymore.
I have been meaning to write about Bobby Griffith for months. But the time never seemed right. That changed Sunday night, inspired by a young man I met who is Mormon and gay. He had come to hear my remarks at the First United Methodist Church here in Salt Lake. As I heard only a small part of his story and felt only a tiny fraction of the pain he has experienced as a result of coming out, I knew that the time had come.
Just that afternoon, as I was making final edits to my talk, my eyes fell on a copy of Prayers for Bobby that had been laying on my desk for weeks. Something seemed to prompt me to pick up the book and flip through it. In doing so, I came to a dog-eared page that contained a passage I had underlined. I read it, and once again, as I had been many times before, I was moved to tears by what I read.
The thought came: you should use that in your talk. But I dismissed this; I could not see how that passage would tie into my prepared remarks. I put the book back down and printed out my talk, gathered up the food I was planning to take for refreshments and headed out to my car.
As I went back into the house for my talk, however, the feeling came to me again to take that book with me. So I did. I had no idea why until I arrived at the church and the impression clearly came to me to end my remarks, not as I had initially intended to, but with the passages from that book that I had underlined on that dog-eared page. It was after doing so, and after meeting the young man to whom I have referred, that I realized that the time had come to write about Bobby Griffith and that I should do so as an open letter to Mormon parents.
Mary Griffith, Bobbys mother, wanted the best for her children not material things, per se, but a good home environment that was centered on faith and trust in God and living according to the teachings of the Bible. She loved her children, but her son Bobbys self-confessed homosexuality ran counter to everything she believed in. She could not accept this in her son. She felt that if she just tried hard enough, prayed hard enough, God would cure her son and everything would be as it was supposed to be. She wanted no empty chairs for her family in the life hereafter.
It was only after her sons death, as she agonized over whether or not Bobbys suicide had consigned him to hell, that her grief drove her to deeply examine not only her conscience but the religious teachings that had driven her zealous campaign to save her son. She eventually came to the horrifying conclusion that her son had been sacrificed on the altar of her religious fanaticism.
Looking back, she wrote, I realize how depraved it was to instill false guilt in an innocent childs conscience, causing a distorted image of life, God and self, leaving little if any feeling of personal worth What a travesty of Gods love, for children to grow up believing themselves to be evil, with only a slight inclination toward goodness, convinced that they will remain undeserving of Gods love from birth to death.
In a letter to Bobby three years after his death, Mary wrote, We were not aware (at first) of the conflict was slowly breaking your spirit You were the apple of Gods eye just as you were. If we had only known. Out of the many discussions we had, the one phrase that comes back to me is the age-old chant, You can change if you want to. How that must have angered and hurt you. You began to feel like you did not fit into your family anymore. You wanted to believe that you were not the person the Bible had interpreted you to be. You were at the mercy, as we all are, of the false interpretations of the Bible concerning homosexuality
A turning point for Mary came as she spoke at a local city council meeting about something as innocuous as approving a resolution calling for a Gay Freedom Week. In a scene brilliantly acted by Sigourney Weaver in the movie based on the book, Mary made an impassioned plea to the council members and her community:
Because of my own lack of knowledge, I became dependent upon people in the clergy. When the clergy condemns a homosexual person to hell and eternal damnation, we the congregation echo, Amen. I deeply regret my lack of knowledge concerning gay and lesbian people. Had I allowed myself to investigate what I now see as Bible bigotry and diabolical dehumanizing slander against our fellow human beings, I would not be looking back with regret for having relinquished my ability to think and reason with other people
God did not heal or cure Bobby as he, our family, and clergy believed he should. It is obvious to us now why he did not. God has never been encumbered by his childs genetically determined sexuality. God is pleased that bobby had a kind and loving heart. In Gods eyes, kindness and love are what life is all about. I did not know that each time I echoed Amen to external damnation, each time I referred to Bobby as sick, perverted and a danger to our children, his self-esteem and personal worth were being destroyed. Finally, his spirit broke beyond repair. He could no longer rise above the injustice of it all
It was not Gods will that bobby jumped over the side of a freeway overpass into the path of an eighteen-wheel truck which killed him instantly. Bobbys death was the direct result of his parents ignorance and fear of the word gay There are no words to express the pain and emptiness remaining in our hearts. We miss Bobbys kind and gentle ways, his fun-loving spirit, his laughter. Bobbys hopes and dreams should not have been taken from him, but they were. We cant have Bobby back.
There are children like Bobby sitting in your congregations. Unknown to you, they will be listening to your Amens as they silently cry out to God in their hearts. Their cries will go unnoticed for they cannot be heard above your Amens. Your fear and ignorance will soon silence their cries. Before you echo Amen in your home and place of worship, think and remember. A child is listening.
Returning again to the letter Mary wrote to her son three years after his suicide, Mary lamented: I believed I was doing right the name of Christ. I did now know my soul; my conscience was in bondage to the people and ministers who stand in Gods stead. I went along in blind allegiance, unwittingly persecuting, oppressing gay and lesbian people my own son. The scales of ignorance and fear that kept my soul in darkness have [now] fallen from the eyes of my soul, my conscience. I have been set free to have faith in, trust the dictates of my conscience.
Mary then wrote the words I used to conclude my remarks last night: I would rather be branded a heretic while helping a child of God out of the gutters of this world, where the church and I have thrown them, than to pass by on the other side muttering under our breath, The wages of sin are death. Rather this that to look away from the pain and humiliation of a child lying helpless. The heart that hungers and thirsts for Gods love will find it in the Bible. It has been said the eyes are the mirror of ones soul. When we look into Gods mirror [the Bible] will we see Gods reflection of love gazing back? Or will we see an evil reflection of mans inhumanity?
I have been a member of the LDS Church for over 25 years. I am a parent. I myself was once as Saul, driven by my deep self-hatred, my homophobia, to embrace the teachings of the Church concerning homosexuality. I had bought into them myself and was, to my shame, guilty of bigotry. Fortunately, the only person I hurt through such acts was myself. Yet, I have experienced, in other situations, the intense pain and regret that has come through putting the Church and its teachings ahead of the welfare of my son. I have repented of such actions and vowed never again to let anything stand between me and my children.
There is much that could be written. But for now, I would simply implore Mormon parents who know or suspect that they have a son or daughter who is gay (or, if you prefer, struggling with feelings of same-gender attraction) to read Prayers for Bobby and/or watch the movie by the same name and then to open your hearts and minds to its message. You may not realize how close your child is or may have been to resolving the conflict in their hearts and minds the way in which Bobby Griffith did. You may not fully appreciate the pain in your childs heart. You may not have ever allowed yourself to question the religious teachings that may have caused a separation between you and your son or your daughter. Please do it now, before it becomes too late.
Invictus Pilgrim blogs at http://invictuspilgrim.blogspot.com, where a media-enhanced version of this post appeared earlier this week.
By way of commercial announcement, a new Mormon Stories Facebook discussion/support group was formed this past week for LGBTQ persons, allies and family members. It can be accessed here: http://www.facebook.com/groups/158660464212536/.