Every year, on National Coming Out Day, I think about my son, Bobby. Bobby was gay, I was a lifelong devout Christian and, in 1983 — two years after coming out to me — he jumped from a highway overpass, ending his life. I know today, to my core, that I was a part of the reason he took his own life. As a devout Christian, I truly believed I was helping my son by encouraging him to “pray away the gay.”
In 2009, my life replayed before my eyes in the Emmy Award-nominated movie Prayers for Bobby, based on a beautiful book by Leroy Aarons, which itself was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award in 1996. I cannot say the movie was easy to watch: Sigourney Weaver painted a stark, unflinching, and accurate portrait of my life and my responses to Bobby’s coming-out and subsequent death. I prayed with Bobby, I prayed for him, I left clippings of scripture for him around the house, even taped to his walls for him to find. He internalized my shame, grew clinically depressed, and engaged in self-harming behaviors, and then paid the ultimate price.
At that time, in my eyes, Bobby was broken, and only God could fix him. In the years since, I’ve come to understand that it wasn’t my son who was broken — it was my blind faith. I’ve also come to learn that I wasn’t alone in my beliefs.
In a harrowing 2018 study from the William Institute at UCLA School of Law, the statistics on so-called “conversion therapy,” often at the hands of faith-based advisors, overwhelms. 698,000 LGBT adults in the U.S. have received conversion therapy, and 57,000 youth (ages 13-17) will receive conversion therapy from religious or spiritual advisors before they reach the age of 18. We advocates are working to end this harmful practice, but the laws generally don’t apply to religious or spiritual advisors. Which means that even in states with bans, like my own state of California, individuals who engage in conversion therapy but don’t hold themselves out as acting pursuant to a professional license, may keep at this egregious practice.
Worse? It’s parents who are inflicting this torture on their kids in the name of faith — and it is killing our LGBTQ+ children. I recently learned of a first-of-its-kind 2018 study from the Family Acceptance Project, where they spoke with 245 LGBT people between the ages of 21 and 25. They asked two questions: How often their parents or caregivers tried to change their sexual orientation, and whether their parents or caregivers had taken them to a therapist or religious leader to change their sexual orientation. Those whose parents took the same actions that I took with Bobby had three-times the odds of having ever attempted suicide. And those whose parents enlisted the help of a therapist or religious leader had five-times the odds.
Take a moment with that. Five-fold higher odds of attempting suicide. Meanwhile, a 2019 report from The Trevor Project shows that just one accepting adult can reduce the risk of a suicide attempt by 40 percent. Sadly, Bobby never had a chance in my home.
On this day, as I sit thinking about National Coming Out Day, and my son, I reflect on the opportunities I’ve had to speak with other parents who thought as I did all those years ago, that their LGBTQ+ children are broken in the eyes of God, and need fixing. Many of those families will gather this weekend at the Values Voter Summit, which is described as “the greatest gathering of conservative pro-family Americans in the nation.” (The painful irony of our nation’s leader speaking to thousands of evangelical Christians — who are fixated on discriminating against, harassing, and “changing” our LGBTQ+ kids — on Coming Out Day is certainly not lost on me.)
I imagine what I would say to those families. What could I say to convince them that their faith needs to be bigger, grow larger, to change? If they believe that God truly created everyone and everything, that must include their own perfect children. I know it includes my own perfect Bobby; this is how my faith expanded, and changed. It is not too late for these parents to be the trusted and loving adult their LGBTQ+ kids need them to be; their very lives depend on it.
Mary Griffith is a mother and advocate. After the death of her son, Bobby, by suicide, she reached out to the LGBTQ+ community for solace, eventually joining PFLAG, the first and largest organization for parents, families, and allies to the LGBTQ+ community. She subsequently renounced her anti-LGBTQ+ beliefs and fundamentalism, becoming a staunch and outspoken advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. To learn more about the Griffith family, visit prayersforbobby.com.