In a way, it seems a little macabre that Bobby Griffith became the unofficial poster boy for the reality of gay suicide, but all things work together for the good, I guess.
Born in 1963, Bobby grew up in a suburban California community. From the git-go, it was apparent that Bobby was not like his brother Ed, who was able to adapt to social expectations for masculinity with much greater ease than Bobby. Ed liked to work on cars with his dad and hustle a good game of baseball. Bobby liked to play with dolls or dress up in his sister's clothes.
Bobby's inability to conform was a source of profound distress for his devoutly religious mother, who believed, according to the tenets of her Protestant faith, in non-negotiable, God-given directives for appropriate gender expression and behavior.
When Bobby was 15 years old, he confided to Ed that he was gay. When his parents found out, they were mortified and launched a vigorous campaign to convert Bobby from homosexuality to heterosexuality.
Just shortly before his 20th birthday, unable to cope with the guilt, shame and frustration of his parents' well-meaning but misguided endeavors, Bobby moved to Portland, Ore. However the geographic cure proved no more effective than snake oil; and, late one night, in the silent midnight darkness, Bobby did a back flip off an overpass and was crushed beyond recognition by an 18-wheeler.
If I were Mary Griffith, Bobby's mother, I'm not sure that I would have had either the courage or the inclination to publicize this most personal and debilitating family tragedy, but that's exactly what Mary did.
Feeling somehow responsible for his death, she felt led to bring something positive, something hopeful, out of Bobby's untimely and horrible demise.
The fruits of her efforts to transform evil into good have compounded year by year. Ten years after Bobby's death, veteran journalist Leroy (Roy) Aarons cold-called Mary Griffith to ask if she would be willing to let him write a book detailing the tortuous journey that both she and Bobby had taken.
Thus, the project "Prayers for Bobby" was born. The book was published in 1995, and it inspired Jay Kawarsky to write a choral cantata under the same title.
Kawarsky and Aarons visited St. Louis recently to witness the cantata's being performed by the Gateway Men's Chorus and Chairs: The St. Louis Women's Chorus, of which I am a member. The performance was a fund-raiser for Project Open Mind, an educational campaign sponsored by PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) to address anti-gay hate speech.
I talked with Aarons, who confirmed what I had suspected about Mary Griffith - that she must be uncompromisingly candid. You'd almost have to be to share something like this with the world.
"We agreed to do some interviews," began Aarons, "and I put together a proposal based on those. Mary and I hit it off right away, maybe because we're about the same age. She was scathingly honest. She had her own problems, like an addiction to diet pills. But she never tried to hide her shortcomings. This is a woman with grit, and her agenda is to save lives."
Aarons explained that it was Mary's hope that by being completely forthcoming about their family dynamics and her own insecurities, other families might be spared the agony of losing a gay child to suicide.
Aarons was alarmed when Mary Griffith turned over all of Bobby's copious diaries - not copies, but originals. "She gave me her full cooperation," he said, almost amazed. "To her the book would be a permanent record of her son's all-too-brief life, which, if other gay kids read, might help them realize that they aren't alone."
I'll never in a million years believe that God intended for Bobby to die as penance for his same sex-orientation. I've heard many people say things like "Thank God for AIDS," or "He was a faggot and worthy of death. It's God's law." It's this kind of cruelty that PFLAG hopes to challenge with Project Open Mind and that Mary Griffith hopes to undo by immortalizing her family's struggle to deal with her son's identity.
Sadly, all the books, music, prayers, press releases and sermons in the world won't bring Bobby back. But if even one family is saved from the Griffiths' fate of having a beloved member die hideously by his own hand, then it is indeed a story worth telling, in as many ways as possible and to as many people who care to hear it.