“Prayers for Bobby”: When “the Gay” Can’t Be Prayed Away

In the late 1970’s and early 80’s, both religion and therapy figured prominently in the life of Bobby Griffith and his family, whose story has been told in the Lifetime TV movie Prayers for Bobby (2009), an adaptation of Leroy Aarons‘s nonfiction book of 1996. For her role as mom Mary Griffith, Sigourney Weaver was nominated for several major awards.

Religion. In the movie, when Mary finds out her son Bobby (Ryan Kelley) is gay, she tries to “cure” him with scripture. In an interview conducted around the time of the movie’s airing, the real-life Mary stated: “My mind-set was completely tied up in the word of the gospel, and I couldn’t hear anything differently. It wouldn’t have made a difference whether this happened yesterday or several years ago. I couldn’t hear anything else.”

This story is just as timely today, in other words, as other moms just like Mary Griffith—moms who are unable to process their kids’ sexual orientation in any other way but by turning to their religious beliefs—are still out there trying the pray-it-away fix.

Therapy: This too was forced on Bobby and was neither comfortable for him nor successful. The film shows an exchange between the psychiatrist and Bobby’s father:

Psychiatrist: A lot of times, confusions like Bobby’s can be caused by a distant father or an overbearing mother.
Robert Griffith: Well, I had both and I am fine.

Behold the shrink’s pathologizing theory of gayness in which both the gay person and the parents are indicted. This was more common during that era than today—but unfortunately can and still does happen. And in Robert’s response, too, we see echoes of the shrink’s notion that “fine” equals heterosexual.

Bobby becomes increasingly tormented by the lack of acceptance he feels; thus, he’s also increasingly depressed. The Variety review of Prayers for Bobby:

So it goes, until Bobby — in an act of pain and desperation — flings himself off a freeway overpass at the age of 20. What follows is Mary’s spiritual quest to understand what transpired — a tormented, tear-stained journey for which three hankies won’t be nearly enough.

“I know now why God didn’t heal Bobby. He didn’t heal him because there was nothing wrong with him,” Mary later says.

Viewing just the movie’s trailer may give you reason enough to pull out one of those hankies:

Yes, for real, Mary’s quest turns her into a gay activist, bravely admitting over and over again her prior mistakes and fighting for the rights and dignity of gay people everywhere.

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