Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Prayers for Bobby

WHEN Mary Griffith was a teenager in the 1960s, she never heard the words gay or homosexual. “People would be described as sissies,” she says. “That was the word we used – and I wasn’t even sure what that meant.”

Astonishing then that Mary would later become a leading figure in the American gay rights movement - and more astonishing still for the fact that when her own son Bobby told her he was gay, she thought it was an “evil” of which he could be “cured”. She sent Bobby to Bible school and a Christian counsellor in the hope that her God would turn him away from, as she saw it, a road that would lead to hell.
At the age of 20, Bobby Griffith threw himself from a freeway bridge in front of an 18-wheel truck.

Prayers for Bobby, a movie starring Sigourney Weaver, chronicles this tragic story and how Bobby’s suicide led Mary to re-examine the homophobic values she had been brought up with. The film shows tomorrow (that was August 1) in Dublin, one of the highlights of the 18th annual GAZE Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.

It is based on a book that Washington Post journalist Leroy Adams wrote with Mary on her journey from blind intolerance to becoming an advocate for parents supporting their gay children. When the film was first aired on American TV last year, Mary said it was incredibly difficult to watch Weaver’s portrayal of the person she used to be.

“Daniel (Sladek, executive producer) brought the film to us and we went to my friend’s house to show it,” says Mary, on the phone from her home in Walnut Creek, California. “My granddaughter turned to me and asked, ‘Were you really like that?’ And I said, that, yes, that was the truth. I thought I was doing the right thing at the time. She has only known me after Bobby died and I’m so happy that I am who I am now for her.”

Who Mary is now – an active member of the American organisation PFLAG, which helps parents to support their gay and lesbian children – is far removed from Mary, the suburban mom whose world imploded when her 16-year-old son Bobby told her he was gay.

“It frightened me,” she says. “Gay people were invisible for me; I had no context for them. We lived in Danville, California at the time in a close, religious community. I was very confident that God was going to cure Bobby. I thought he’d go to a Christian counsellor and be cured.

“Bobby didn’t go there very long – he felt it was a waste of time. I still remember what he said: that he wanted to be the kind of person God wanted him to be. Looking back on it now, he already was what God wanted him to be. He was perfect but I couldn’t see that.”

This was the early 1980s and the sort of “conversion therapy” that Mary describes was beginning to take a foothold in evangelical Christian America. Groups like the Love in Action ministry purported that sexual orientation was a choice and that gay people could be “turned off” homosexuality through counselling and the power of prayer.

In some cases, horrific aversive treatments have been used in an attempt to “convert” gay people; electric shocks and nausea-inducing drugs administered at the same time as showing the “patient” homoerotic images.

The American Psychiatric Association and the Canadian Psychological Association have both stated that “conversion” is mentally impossible as being gay is not a learned behaviour. Just this month, the British Medical Association branded gay conversion therapy as thoroughly harmful.

Mary Griffith says that it took a few years after Bobby died before she could leave the dogma of her religious upbringing behind her to understand who her son had been. “God didn’t cure Bobby because there was nothing wrong with him,” she says simply.

Most heartbreaking of all was her discovery of Bobby’s old diary, in which he records his anguish at being misunderstood and alienated.
“The most outstanding thing that Booby wrote was that he was always so afraid and angry that people didn’t understand him and that he was frightened young man and angry at the world,” says Mary.

“It wasn’t of comfort to read the diary but it helped me realise why he was so angry and so upset. I could see that everything I was doing was pushing him away.”
She spoke to other religious ministers outside her own evangelical Christian community, including those of the Metropolitan Community Church which was open to gay members of the congregation. She discovered that Bobby had even attended a few of their meetings.

“I had a dream after Bobby died of Bobby as a small baby. In the dream, I was focused on his head and it came to me that this is what I had been missing. It is all there, our psychology, our personality, our sexuality, when we are born. Bobby hadn’t changed and become gay, he was born that way and it was natural.”

By the time Bobby died, he had moved to the larger city of Portland in Oregon where he had found a boyfriend and was living openly as a gay man. He had become estranged from his family back at home, something that Mary, now 74, still bitterly regrets almost 30 years on. “I just wouldn’t give in and I’ll always have a problem with that,” she says.

“Lies destroyed Bobby, and ignorance. It has gotten easier with time and I can sense Bobby’s presence every now and then. But the thing I want other parents of gay children to know is that they are a lifeline. Their children need their support, they need their family behind them.”

After years of campaigning to help young gay people in the way she hadn’t managed to help Bobby, she feels some sense of peace. “I just felt I had to do that. I felt that it’s never too late to right an injustice done to another human being.”

When she was approached about the possibility of turning her story into a movie, she saw it as an opportunity for others to learn from her mistakes. Oscar-winning actress Sigourney Weaver was moved enough to visit Mary in her Californian home.

“I had a lot of questions,” says Weaver. “I wanted to be sure that I could tell Mary's story, that I understood it. I needed to sit down with her myself and ask, ‘Who were you that you could so close your eyes and ears to what Bobby was suffering?’ She was very generous with me, very forthcoming.”

At the end of the film, as Sigourney leads a gay pride march for PFLAG in San Francisco, Mary and her husband Bob have a cameo role as supporters in the crowd. It’s ironic, thinks Mary, because she used to watch those marches on the television news before she lost Bobby and wondered how those parents could support their children in being gay.

When she eventually joined PFLAG, some of her extended family had a problem with it. “I had to question the Bible and it was a very scary thing for me. But nothing happened, God didn’t strike me down.”

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