Monday, August 8, 2011

Prayers for Bobby: An Open Letter to Mormon Parents

“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 didn’t want, but couldn’t 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 couldn’t live with himself anymore. 

I had been meaning to write about Bobby Griffith for months.  But the time never seemed right.  That changed yesterday, inspired by a young man I met last night 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 (which I will write about tomorrow), 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.  So here goes ...

Mary Griffith, Bobby’s 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 Bobby’s 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 son’s death, as she agonized over whether or not Bobby’s 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, after an intense period of self-examination, prayer and study, 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 child’s conscience, causing a distorted image of life, God and self, leaving little if any feeling of personal worth … What a travesty of God’s 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 God’s 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 that was slowly breaking your spirit … You were the apple of God’s 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 in what would become almost a crusade to expiate for her sins - to prevent what had happened to her son from happening to some other young man - came as she spoke at a local city council meeting in favor of something (we would consider today) 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 belived he should.  It is obvious to us now why he did not.  God has never been encumbered by his child’s genetically determined sexuality.  God is pleased that Bobby had a kind and loving heart.  In God’s eyes, kindess 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 God’s will that Bobby jumped over the side of a freeway overpass into the path of an eighteen-wheel truck which killed him instantly.  Bobby’s 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 Bobby’s kind and gentle ways, his fun-loving spirit, his laughter.  Bobby’s hopes and dreams should not have been taken from him, but they were.  We can’t 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 she wrote to her son three years after his suicide, Mary lamented:  “I believed I was doing right in the name of Christ.  I did not know my soul; my conscience was in bondage to the people and ministers who stand in God’s 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 than to look away from the pain and humiliation of a child lying helpless.  The heart that hungers and thirsts for God’s love will find it in the Bible.  It has been said the eyes are the mirror of one’s soul.  When we look into God’s mirror [the Bible] will we see God’s reflection of love gazing back?  Or will we see an evil reflection of man’s 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 and defend 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, as I have written about herethe 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 on and about this subject; 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 child’s 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 and you lose your precious child, either through death or alienation, and you mourn not the empty chair in heaven but the empty chair in your own house where he or she could have been sitting, smiling back at you.


  1. It's Sigourney Weaver, not Susan Sarandon. Just FYI.

    Loved this post.

  2. Thanks for the post and thanks for the beautiful video.

  3. Powerful post, Invictus- thanks. I'm glad to hear about your talk at First United as well, and anticipate your post going into more detail. I regret that I wasn't in attendance.

    Prayers for Bobby was an emotional experience for me. The story is one that has doubtlessly played out, with small variation, thousands of times over the past few decades. The magnitude of anguish and unnecessary conflict and suffering typified by Bobby's story gets me. Thank you for the invitation.

  4. This was a beautiful post. And, very touching. Thank you, Invictus, for taking the time to write it.

    I know I am not the only gay LDS person to consider suicide because of not being able to reconcile my sexuality with my religious beliefs.

    But, as I read "it was not God's will that Bobby jump from an overpass...", it brought back the searing memory of the night I was going to take my life, but did not because of a benevolent Heavenly Father who stopped me, through a policeman, and then told me in every fiber of my soul, "It is NOT necessary for you to kill yourself because you are gay. We love you. You do not have to die because you are gay."

    I knew, and felt, that Heaven knew and loved me.

    And, it was NOT necessary that I die. That changed EVERYTHING for me.

    Thank you for reminding of that today, through your post. Love and respect, always.

  5. Duck, we haven't met before, but I'm glad you're still here too.

    I've never considered suicide, but there have been plenty of times that I wished that I would die. I'm grateful I've worked beyond that, but I think it is tragic how many young men face those feelings because of the thoughtless words of those who claim to speak for God.

  6. Bravo. I suggest submitting this to the Ensign. Think they'll publish it?

  7. @ Utahhiker801: thank you for your kind words. I appreciate them and your support. Thank you.

    (I know that the majority of people who are on the MoHo directory are men. As a gay woman, I needed for people to know and understand that my struggles with accepting our gayness and somehow coming to reconciliation with the church and the gospel has been every bit as intense for me as it is for gay men in the church. I have known since I was a wee lass that I was gay, but it took until just a few years ago for me to come finally to acceptance. it can be a real and long process.)

    Happy night. :)

    (And, so ironic- many feel such "angst" when dealing with their gayness, myself included. My subscription word for this comment was disangst, the opposite of angst? :) Also interesting to note that the German word "angst", pronounced with the o sound in Jon, means "fear". THAT has been MY definition of "angst" all these years: fear of losing my family, fear of losing friends, fear of losing... you name it, it was/is there.)

  8. Some day it will be a different world and at church parents may turn to each-other and say, "oh I have a son who is Gay too, we are both so lucky!" Or another, "Our Daughter is a Lesbian and we love her partner as if she was one of our own." Someday, maybe someone will edit the bible again and only leave in the verses dealing with, respect, acceptance and living life as though "loving thy neighbor as thy self" was truly and admonition to love rather than self hatred projected outward. May all those dealing with this issue remember, that no matter whether you are gay, straight or anything else under the sun, you are all still part of God's creation as a whole, inseparable and united with the Universal life force that runs through all things. Do not end your lives, reach out to others and find a new paradigm to believe in, you do not need to walk the path without traveling companions, many have gone before you, and one day you will look back at your journey with amazement and the deepest joy, that you made it through your dark night of the soul. I promise!

  9. D Fisher - thanks so much for your perceptive and extremely relevant comments. A new paradigm ... yes. So often, we get trapped in paradigms ...