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Mary Griffith:
Everyday Hero 

Mary Griffith:
Everyday Hero 

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Ex-evangelical Christian Mary Griffith overcame the suicide of her son Bobby and became an outspoken advocate for gay rights.

You don't see a lot of statues commemorating reformed homophobes, but Mary Griffith arguably merits one. An ex-evangelical Christian who, by her own admission, helped shame her gay son, Bobby, into suicide in 1983, she's spent the rest of her life trying to save other kids from the hurtful lunacy she inflicted on him in the name of God. Her story, known to millions who've read Prayers for Bobby -- journalist Leroy Aaron's unflinching 1995 account -- has inspired a Middle-America-friendly film starring Sigourney Weaver that airs on Lifetime Television January 24.

"I think the movie comes very close to what happened," says Griffith, now 74, a disarmingly straightforward woman who's still atoning for the years she spent "trapped" in robotic bigotry, briskly insisting that Bobby resist Satan the way other moms urge their kids to brush their teeth, while willfully ignoring his collapsing self-esteem. "Sigourney really expresses how assured I was that God would heal Bobby," she says, "as if it were a slam dunk, how afraid I was...and how I felt when I realized that nothing was wrong with Bobby [after his death]."

Born into a large family of holy rollers in 1934, Griffith was an insecure, supposedly slow child whose own mother nicknamed her "Lamebrain." The imminent threat of damnation was a popular dinner-table topic, and Griffith once dreamt that the Almighty's gargantuan, grasping hand was chasing her. After some pretty average teenage "sinning" led to a run-in with the law, Griffith grew convinced she was Godless, and fully succumbed to the fundamentalist extremism that would contribute to her own son's death.

"I don't particularly like to look back. I don't like who I was," says Griffith, who still lives in the Walnut Creek, California home in which she raised her three surviving children. "It's humiliating just to go through the Bible and see the fairy tales I believed, like that business about mixing fabrics." (The Tim-Gunnish dictate from Deut. 22:11 -- "Thou shalt not wear a garment of divers sorts, as of woolen and linen together" -- that restricted her sewing projects).

Bobby tried to open her mind by giving her books about homosexuality, Griffith says: "But anything that would uplift Bobby and made me see him as a decent person...was viewed as evil [by her church]." It took his suicide, she says, to make her realize that she'd been using religion to avoid thinking through life's complexities for herself. "I felt like I was born again," she says. "I was free to read again. I was free to think again."

In a remarkable conversion, this shy and unworldly woman renounced her faith and went on to become the president of an East San Francisco Bay PFLAG chapter, and a nationally known gay activist and speaker, urging other parents to listen to their children, not the Christian Right's theatrical scare tactics: "Satan is a convenient way to keep the troops in line," she says, "like the bogeyman. Fear works pretty good." Luckily, for the many parents who've benefited from Griffith's cautionary tale, brutal honesty works even better.

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