Albion Monitor /Features

Stephanie and Tim Reed (photo: Ruben Rodriguez)

Innocents Lost

by John De Salvio

There is a look of sadness etched into the face of Stephanie Reed that will probably stay with her the rest of her life. She, with her husband Tim beside her, made an eloquent plea to the Petaluma School Board in November, and to the school principals two weeks ago. She asked them to listen to the inner cries of children like her son Robin, whose anguish about his life was not understood, even by such a loving and accepting family as the Reeds.

"When a parent cannot raise a child to adulthood because that child takes their own life, I don't care what the reason is, there is a lot of pain around that," she said. "It's a failure somewhere in life."

Her story is compared with that of Mary Griffith, the Walnut Creek woman whose son Bobby took his life in 1983. There are both similarities and differences.

"At first I really didn't understand where we were similar, but I came to see that we both were ignorant about how to raise a gay child," she said. "I think that is where we have a lot in common. "I didn't have a religious point of view. I don't in life, and I didn't in regards to Robin. In that way we didn't have similar backgrounds. She had been told something that was untrue and followed that belief. I really had no knowledge..."

Torn by strong religious belief that homosexuality was a sin, and that fervent prayer could "cure" it

The Griffith family was torn by its strong religious belief that homosexuality was a sin, and that fervent prayer could "cure" it. Even Bobby believed it; and a belief either that he was condemned to hell for all eternity or that a loving God did not exist, ultimately led to his suicide. Mary Griffith has since accepted that there was nothing wrong with Bobby in the eyes of God. "God had not cured our son. Why? Because Bobby was created in God's image. There was nothing to cure."

Stephanie Reed's feelings about homosexuality were different. "I think homosexuality is fine. I think it's natural. That's a long-held belief of mine."

She thought her attitude would protect and strengthen Robin. "Because we thought it was OK with us, we thought it would be OK with Robin, which is a naive viewpoint given what our children experience outside the home."

She remembered her conversation with Robin one Saturday morning, a few weeks before his death, when he tried to explain his feelings and his confusion.

"I listened, and I responded warmly, but I didn't push the conversation. Again it's that ignorance. I didn't know what he was saying exactly and I didn't know what might have been required of me. I regret that."

Her recollections about Robin's life from early grade school-even in second grade he was picked on-has shown her how confusing and difficult a not-yet-aware gay child's emotions can be in a hostile environment. "Anytime you have a 15-year-old who's talking about being gay," she said, "it's worth understanding what that child's experience might be like outside the home."

Her exposure to the comments made by several people at the hearing added to her awareness of a sometimes cruel and ignorant outside world.

"It's not that people didn't say things that I wish didn't get said, but I feel that people's beliefs are out of my control to a certain degree. If I can influence them with my experiences, that in a sense is what I'm trying to do right now."

She knows she has opposition.

"I just don't know what the schools are going to be bombarded with as a result of this," she said, referring to the statements made by the Baptist and Mormon clergy.

I feel that there is some pretty serious opposition out there and I wouldn't dismiss it lightly."

"Suicide is the ultimate form of censorship"

Will she become a crusader and activist as Mary Griffith has? "My goal is to see a change occur in Petaluma High School. That's as far as my vision goes right now. If somebody else has another vision for me, I will consider it. But I don't see beyond that, and I haven't had an inkling that there's anything beyond that for me."

Mary Griffith, who recently returned from Washington, D.C. where she testified before the House Economic and Educational Opportunities subcommittee investigative hearing on Parents, Schools and Values, is still not used to the loss of her son after twelve long years. The Christmas season is not easy in the Griffith household.

"It's still very emotional," she says. "I will be going along, and suddenly something will just trigger it -- like getting ready for the holidays -- decorating. I have to pretty much keep myself in check or I would probably break down and cry more often.

"Christmas was a big thing for Bobby. We go along and try to not break down, for each other. I'm usually glad when it's over," she said. "What disturbs me the most are the Christmas carols. They cause me a lot of pain in the sense that this is what did Bobby in -- this ideology. It affects me that way. I really can't help it. They're beautiful songs, but I just get very emotional when I hear them. So I buy secular Christmas songs, like White Christmas."

She spoke about the hearings in Washington. "I gave them a description of my son and how religious ideology and their stands on homosexuality caused him a lot of guilt and depression, and how the dehumanizing and demoralizing slander led to his suicide," she said.

"Seeds of fear are planted in the mind of ignorance," she told the subcommittee. "From then on, ignorance listens, and believes without question the demoralizing and dehumanizing slander spread about our children. This rhetoric destroyed our son's life, and countless children today. I have learned all too well that hell has no fury like that of ignorance and fear. Special interest groups use them to promote prejudice, discrimination, rejection, and violence against our children.

"Suicide is the ultimate form of censorship," she continued. "Daily, our children are being accused, judged, convicted and sentenced to a life of spiritual poverty, degradation of self-esteem and personal worth. An epidemic of violence and suicide among our children is the ultimate result. All because of hearsay, ugly rumors, half-truths and outright lies."

No reconciliation with her former church, which long ago took them off the mailing list

Many believe Lou Sheldon, founder of the Traditional Values Coalition and vehemently anti-gay, instigated the hearings to prevent any sex education from being taught in the schools, especially anything to do with homosexuality. "He had witnesses including a lawyer, and a lesbian woman who has an organization for gay and lesbian people. She was kind of like a spy on the inside. She was saying the federal funding was being used for sex orgies. It was totally outrageous. I can hardly wait to see the transcripts. She said so many ridiculous things."

Has there been any reconciliation with her former church, the Walnut Creek Presbyterian Church, especially after the publication of the book, "Prayers for Bobby"? No, there has not. The church long ago took them off the mailing list, and has had no communication with them since.

"A young man bought the book and he highlighted 27 times where Walnut Creek Presbyterian Church was mentioned, and he gave it to the minister there," Mary recalls. "I haven't talked to him since. But as I understand, one young man who was very openly gay did seek to join the church, and they refused him membership."

But not all in Walnut Creek is negative. While she acknowledges how difficult it is for a person to change a strongly-held faith, she keeps speaking to people.

"My best idea to fight the Fundamentalist belief is to get them to realize it's not only a life-and-death matter, but that there are different interpretations of the Bible. Many churches have come around to see that. The More Light educational program is based in the Presbtyerian church; and the Reconciling Congregations is a Methodist organization in Walnut Creek open to education and information. They hold classes. It took them five years to decide to open their doors to gay and lesbian people. 80 percent voted for reconciliation, 20 percent against. They're just basically intolerant. But they haven't left the church."

She holds regular meetings of PFLAG (Parents, Family, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) in her home, and will be speaking to Ignacio Valley High School this summer.

"We sent out letters to all the schools letting them know that we were available for their psychology and health classes, but we haven't received one reply in to months," said Mary.

What about Bobby's high school, where he received such torment? "Two kids on the campus of Las Lomas High School who are out said it's OK but it could be a better environment," she said.

"A young man is going to have a commemorative plaque for Bobby for the school from the Class of 1981. He has permission from the school principal to do this. They may plant a tree. That was very kind. It will help a lot of kids who are invisible at Las Lomas High School."

There may be a more national memorial to Bobby in the near future, for all the country to see.

"We are in the negotiating stages of making a television movie based on 'Prayers for Bobby', says Mary. The production will be on one of the major networks, perhaps in 1996.

"They say it will probably take about three months to write a script. They'll have to do a lot of interviewing again. It's going to be hard on everybody," she said. "We just got the book out in June. But it's an opportunity to get the message out so I could hardly say no. We'll do it, and we'll make it through again."

Roy Aarons, the book's author, is involved in the negotiations. "It has been my concern from the start that they won't water anything down as far as the issue goes -- what's caused all this -- which is the religious aspect and homosexuality, very controversial subjects as far as television goes."

This is pretty much my own personal experience. It's like telling a story. It won't blacken anybody's eye. It's what happened to me and our family."

And, as both Mary and Stephanie hope and pray, it's a story that should no longer have to be repeated.

Above: Mary Griffith and Bobby (photo by Liz Mangelsdorf, from Tears for Bobby)

Albion Monitor December 21, 1995 (

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