Friday, October 01, 2010

Prayers for Bobby today: Gay kids committing suicide

Gay teens are killing themselves -- two 13-year-olds due to bullying (see this terrific blog post by Sue Katz), and a college student whose tryst was videoed and put online. It sickens me that young people just discovering their sexuality feel so vulnerable that it's easier to die than to live. Those of us who have lived long enough to know ourselves, accept ourselves (including our sexuality -- whatever its stripes or colors), and find or create a community that lets us live fully and honestly have a responsibility to pass this along to young people.


That's how Leroy Aarons felt at age 61, and that's why I'm repeating the following post from January 2009. I don't know if you can find the Lifetime movie now, but the book is as valuable now as the day it was written. Please read it, then pass it along to someone who needs it. A life may depend on it.


Here's what I wrote in January 2009:

At age 61, prizewinning journalist Leroy Aarons discovered the true story of Bobby Griffith, a story so gripping that he devoted himself to retelling this story in novel form.

His book, Prayers for Bobby, has inspired a movie premiering on Lifetime TV, Saturday, January 24, 2009. It is the riveting true story of teenager Bobby Griffith, who back-flipped off a freeway overpass into the path of a tractor trailer at age 20 because he could not accept his homosexuality. Prayers for Bobby chronicles Bobby’s angst at growing up gay in a fundamentalist Christian family and an anti-homosexual social and school environment. Aarons gently and lovingly pieces together Bobby’s life, fears, hopes and, finally, hopelessness, with the help of the five year diary he left, his legacy.

Prayers for Bobby (subtitle: A Mother’s Coming to Terms with the Suicide of Her Gay Son) is also the story of Mary Griffith, Bobby’s mother, played by Sigourney Weaver in the Lifetime movie. A staunch, one-tracked fundamentalist, Mary was convinced that if she and Bobby just prayed enough, and if Bobby tried hard enough, God would cure him of his homosexuality. She prayed, she nagged Bobby relentlessly, she shamed him, she put Bible quotes on the mirror for him to see when he wakened. Too late, Mary finally realized with a thunderbolt of insight that the reason God had refused to cure Bobby was that there was nothing wrong with him.

What does this have to do with our age group? Plenty. Think about how we had to discover our own sexual and sensual natures despite the mores of our restrictive society in an era that condemned what seemed our most natural feelings and desires. Imagine being trapped in a world that didn't understand you at a time you couldn't even understand yourself. And reach out.

If you think you don't know any closeted gay teenagers, it's only because they are closeted. Maybe your "Bobby" is your grandson, or your granddaughter's best friend, or the neighbor kid, or the quiet boy at church. We've learned a lot about life and about sexuality in the decades we've been living on this earth, and part of it is to accept ourselves and open ourselves to younger folks who might need a role model, a listening ear, and a warm "so good to see you today."

Please see the movie, and read the book, which goes into much more detail and will haunt you in a beautiful way.

I am proud that I knew Leroy Aarons until his death four years ago, called him my friend Roy, and still enjoy a close friendship with Joshua Boneh, his surviving spouse. Please check out the website that Joshua and Roy's friends have constructed in Roy's memory and to celebrate the movie that he always hoped would be made about his book.

(photo of Leroy Aarons and Joshua Boneh)

9 comments:

  1. Joan, this is a wonderful post. Especially in the light of recent events (so-called "defense of marriage" acts) which reaffirm to gay teens that they're pariahs in society, these issues need to be faced.

    As you know, I wrote a book called "Gay Relationships: How to Find Them, How to Improve Them, How to Make Them Last" which was published in 1989 and is still selling (brought out in 2003) in a new edition. I work with so many gay and lesbian clients who are in pain because of rejection by their families, their churches, their schools that I know how big this problem is. I hope everyone reads your blog and "Prayers for Bobby" and confonts the denial and rejection of our gay youth.

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  2. Joan, I agree with everything you said, and am proud and grateful to have you as a friend.
    I do respect the commitment many religious people have to their faith. I know the sense of peace I get when I trust in a bigger and wiser entity. And the bible is such an inspired book. I am grateful about the shift taking places in many churches and synagogues about affirming gay love and so hope that the book and movie would contribute to a bigger shift.

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  3. Dear Joan, I have marked the date on my calendar with gratitude for your post.

    On New Year's Eve, I went to the theatre to see a local Boston comedian, Jimmy Tingle, who does political commentary. He talked about how much things have changed since the days, decades ago, when he and his friends bullied kids in school they suspected of being gay - and now he supports gay marriage. He asked people in the audience who remember their own homophobia to raise their hands - and not one person did!

    Unfortunately, as you point out, the harrassment of young people - whether from their peers or parents - has certainly not ended. Teenage suicide rates, as a result, are highest among gay kids.

    Thanks for the heads-up about both a book and a film that I might have missed. Your post beautifully communicates your infectious passion for this project.

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  4. Joan, Thank you for this post. For many gay teenagers, coming out to their grandparents is more difficult than coming out to their parents.

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  5. Suicide? I think it goes hand in hand with being gay and trying to figure out how to deal with the homophobia, internalized and from the larger community out there in the world for those of us who are gay and lesbian.

    It brings to mind many people in my life who either did take their lives, or wanted to use it as a way to cope with the pain of being threatened, hated, discriminated against, etc. As a teenager in 1953, coming out was a mixture of excitement, fear and confusion. I was lucky to be in a community where many of my peers were also coming out as lesbians.

    One young girl I remember, was full of fun and laughter as many of us hung out together, behaving much like straight teens in those days. Listening to music, dancing, sneaking in a beer here and there and a few kisses too. However, we had to do it in "secret".

    While on the outside, Phyllis seemed happy and full of love for life, it became obvious that she was hiding a whole lot of pain. At the age of 18 she was married and eventually had two children. All of us who had known her as a lesbian felt that she really didn't want to marry a man, but in order to have children which she wanted, it was what she had to do.

    One day her two little boys came home from school and called out for her as she wasn't in the kitchen where she usually met them at the end of the day. They went tearing through the house looking for her. One boy jokingly said, "Hey maybe she's in the closet!" As he opened the door, his brother came running up saying, "Yeah, you know how she's always playing tricks on us."

    What they found was their mother alright, she had hung herself. She could not find a way out of the "closet".

    In those early days, the time before any gay rights came along, I would imagine many men and women who were gay took their lives; as I almost did. It took becoming a "fighter" that gave me the will to live and to fight for the rights of myself and others as well.

    Don't begin judging her without having walked in her shoes. Living a divided life can drive people to insanity and that is what the anti-gay supporters hope to accomplish I guess. I mean if Phyllis had lived in a world where who she was, was acceptable and seen as normal, then people wouldn't have to end their pain as she did.

    As a person who worked in the early AIDS epidemic in Sonoma County, CA, many young men came to me for counseling as they were facing their deaths. The vast majority talked of the issue of suicide and how the option of using it to cope was always available to them. As their counselor I wanted to try to eliminate the self-loathing enough to help them deal with their depression and anxiety in a way that would allow them to cope until they were ready to die with love and respect in their hearts for themselves.

    The only person who really needs to approve of any of us is ourselves. Once we get that, no one can take away our right to live and live without the nagging feeling of wanting to die. Many people I worked with did leave the planet respecting who they were and not just because of my work as a counselor but because they were supported by many friends, organizations and family who had brought their love to them instead of their hate. With the support of people like you Joan, things just have to get better for our gay youth; thank you.

    Carol Owens, counselor, educator, and friend.

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  6. As gay man who has contemplated suicide in the past - this topic really strikes a chord with me. I am looking forward to watching this movie.

    Interesting blog - perhaps you might consider a post giving your thoughts on intimacy in a mixed orientation marriage. How important is intimacy in a marriage where both love each other, but only one is sexually attracted to the other?

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  7. I was gay in 2nd grade. In high school it became a problem. It should be OK to be gay - the problems I faced then and face to this day as a result of others not accepting me because I AM GAY - are significant. Mostly self inflicted. I am now 46. I wish better for future generations. Mine didn't totally suck - I was at the March on Washington 10 years after I was discharged from the Navy in 83 for sleeping with my division officer.

    It is a new world but looking back it isn't as new as some might think.

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  8. The saddest comment is (and I commented on this post when it originally went up) that your important words are still so relevant today and are likely to be so for years to come. There's something very sweet in your tone and I'm sure it has to do with a wonderful friendship with the author and his partner. Thanks for this.

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  9. I'm rereading these comments in 2014 after recommending Prayers for Bobby to a friend. I'm sad that homophobic bullying and shaming are still rampant in schools, families, and religious communities. We're made progress -- many schools have anti-bully policies now, and the remarkable "It Gets Better" project informs and inspires millions, but so many young people have not been reached by these efforts. If YOU can reach out to someone, I hope you will.

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