Last night I saw an advance screening of a new made-for-television movie, Prayers for Bobby, starring Sigourney Weaver. It seems a little silly to go to a public showing of a movie that will be playing on television, doesn't it. Well, I had a couple of reasons to be there. One, Ms. Weaver was going to be there to take questions afterwards. My main reason though was the subject matter.
The movie is based on a true story of the Griffith family, specifically dealing with the mother, Mary, as she struggles to reconcile her devout Christian faith with her son Bobby's gayness. I have many friends who may feel this already constitutes a spoiler, so in deference to those friends I'll just say, watch the movie this Saturday, Jan 24th, on Lifetime, at 9pm. Within in the limitations of a made-for-television movie, I think it does some remarkable things. If you can, watch it with any friend who believes the Bible is unequivocal on the subject of homosexuality. And don't read any more of this entry right now.
Prayers for Bobby was a book first, one that had somehow escaped my attention, but it is now often the book that glbt children give their parents when they first come out to them. Mary Griffith, believing she was acting out of love, tried every method out there to 'cure' her son of his homosexuality, and didn't start to question her actions until it was too late. Understand, this is not a happy movie, though I do think ultimately it's a hopeful one. Mary Griffith is very firm now in her acceptance of glbt folks, and she has come a long way from her previous Biblically-based disapproval. The movie reflects that journey, so there will be plenty of people who find it easy to dismiss as polemic. That said, I think the movie also does a good job of showing her intentions were always based in love, even if they were (in my, and now, her opinion) dead wrong. Mary was a mother doing what she thought was right for her child and now is working hard to do what she believes is right for other children. Ms Weaver said she hoped that having this show in people's living rooms would, in the most loving way, ambush a few people. Maybe folks would turn on something starring that lady from the Aliens movie, find the story compelling enough to stick it out, and end up re-examining some of their beliefs afterwards. There was a time when I would have thought that was a sweet yet silly pipe-dream, but that was before I met many of you. That was before Brokeback Mountain. Many of you found your way to a more accepting place through all sorts of surprising sources. Maybe this movie will do the same for at least a few others.
Recent conversations and blog-reading have reminded me how easily the fears, insecurities and plain-old feelings of worthlessness crop up for glbt folks, no matter how long we've been out, no matter how accepting the people around us are, no matter how good a life we've managed to build for ourselves. I suspect most people battle demons their whole lives, but since my experience is as a gay man, that's the one I understand most easily. Seeing the movie last night reminded me how much of a struggle coming out was, and continues to be, even after more than twenty years. Understand, I think I escaped the most vicious forms of the message. I did not grow up hearing homosexuality regularly denounced in Quaker meeting, at least not that I can recall. While my loved ones did occasionally make jokes or scathing remarks in my hearing, I'd also seen each of them go to bat, publicly, for gay friends, and never questioned that they would love me no matter what. Yes, I was surrounded at school by students AND faculty who rarely missed an opportunity to make fags the butt of a joke, but as the child of pacifist liberal-socialists in a conservative town I had already been taught it was valid to question conventional wisdom. Yet none of that made a difference; I still loathed myself for being gay. I still lay awake nights praying I would be cured. I still decided, at age thirteen, that since the cure thing didn't seem to be happening, I would simply be alone and celibate my whole life. I was nineteen and in my second year of college before I even considered re-examining this choice. I even avoided becoming too close to people, just as friends, because I had this deep, terrible secret. I still believed I was worthless. Suicide was a constant spectre in my adolescent years. Looking back I am hard-pressed to identify the specifics of where, when or how I took in this message, nor why I accepted it so easily, but I did. If I, with unconditional love at home, and at least the theory that the issue was debatable, felt this worthless, how much worse must it have been for teenagers who lacked even these glimmers of hope? As a forty-two year old man living in NYC, with a loving network of friends and family who have known the real me for nearly twenty-three years, I still sometimes discover feelings of worthlessness and self-doubt creeping in. They usually wear clever disguises these days, but when I unmask them, they often turn out to be old yet still potent emotions from adolescence. Sex is still fraught with thoughts of death, disease, humiliation and wrongness. I still sometimes feel a momentary disgust -and complicity- if I meet the 'wrong' kind of gay man, or I see one behaving in a way I consider 'unseemly'. Feelings of guilt are still a hair's-breadth away for a wide array of causes (and if I shared some of those causes, you'd be amazed at the level of ridiculousness).
I was, without a doubt, one of the lucky ones. The homophobia I lived through was a glancing blow compared to what many suffer. How much harder do others, lacking my good fortune, have to fight to maintain a sense of human dignity, hell, a sense of simple pleasure in their days? How many kids never even get this far? How many closets are still out there?
Mary Griffith has become an activist for glbt rights with a special insight on children in religious communities. My memory won't do justice to a statement she made, but the gist of it is "before you say 'amen', remember, a child is listening." Experience, and many of you, dear friends, have taught me that movies like this often DO reach people in surprising ways. The organizers of the advance showing last night were specifically hoping we would get the word out, so that's what I'm doing here. It's my special hope that this movie reaches people who work with kids, and even if it doesn't change their views of Scripture, that at least it leads them to new more loving ways to approach the topic. A tall order, I realize, but I've seen it happen, as have so many of you. Understanding only comes when we're able to talk and listen to one another but this hard enough for adults; it's simply beyond the average teenager. As someone who made it through to a better place, this movie reminded me how lucky I was, and how much responsibility I have to people, especially kids, to share my good fortune.
The movie is far from perfect. Some of the strokes get painted a bit broadly. Ms. Weaver herself, seeing the final cut for the first time last night, said she found the commercial breaks annoying. Did I mention this movie is playing on Lifetime? It definitely bears that stamp. But it portrays a struggle that still goes on, all the time, all over the country, even in supposed bastions of tolerance like New York. The movie is unabashed in its espousal of a message. But that message is still needed.