The Times of Bobby Griffith
Homosexuality at Las Lomas,
Past and Present
By Joshua Kors
It was 12:35 a.m. on a warm Saturday morning, August 27, 1983, when, witnesses say, ex-Las Lomas student Bobby Griffith walked to a nearby freeway overpass after a night of dancing. Twenty years old, he climbed onto the railing, paused and back-flipped onto the pavement twenty feet below. He was hit by an oncoming 18-wheeler.
What drove Bobby, a "quiet, peaceful kind of person" in his mother's words, to commit suicide? Isolated both at school and at home, Bobby became despondent, unable to accept himself and his lifestyle. His mother, Mary Griffith, taped Bible passages to his mirror to remind him that he was evil and must change or go to hell. At school he ate alone, afraid everyone could look at him and know his secret.
Bobby Griffith was gay.
An orange candle burns, day and night, in the corner of the Griffith’s living room, next to Bobby’s graduation picture and three gay pride buttons — “Boycott homophobia,” “We love our gay and lesbian children,” and “Stonewall 25th Anniversary” — remembrances of Bobby’s brief life and tragic death. Yet more than a decade later the lessons in Bobby’s suicide have not fully been learned. Gay and lesbian youth still account for 30 percent of all suicides, according to the Department of Health and Human Services; over 40 percent of gay teens have attempted it.
Mary Griffith says she learned important lessons from her son's death. She reevaluated her Presbyterian faith and anti-homosexual beliefs, beliefs she now feels pushed Bobby to desperation. Once an ardent opponent of homosexuality, Griffith now sounds one of the strongest voices on the march for gay rights. She has spoken about Bobby’s death on 20/20 and Oprah in addition to founding the Walnut Creek chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians And Gays (PFLAG), a support group for gay teens and their parents. Her hope, she says, is that sharing Bobby’s story will prevent another needless suicide.
Bobby Griffith was born into a loving, devoutly Christian family on June 24, 1963. Both friends and family say he felt happy and confident early in high school, participating on the track and swim teams and writing stories in his spare time. “He was a very outgoing person until he discovered about his gayness. Then he became very quiet, kept to himself a lot,” Mary Griffith explained. “That’s understandable when there was really no other student he knew that he could identify with. So he pretty much spent his lunch hours and breaks reading and writing. I guess he thought everyone could look at him and see that he was gay.”
Brought up to believe that homosexuality was evil, Bobby felt constantly guilty and afraid to come out, confiding only in his older brother Ed and former counseling secretary Grace Lewis. “I didn’t know this until quite a while after Bobby’s suicide, but [Lewis] said he was very lonesome, and she could see that he was in a lot of pain. At school they would make fun of him because they could tell he was different,” Griffith said.
Although growing increasingly depressed, Bobby tried to maintain appearances, attending church regularly. “I think that must have been really uncomfortable, knowing how the church felt. But he kept going. For Bobby it was quite a conflict. He couldn’t understand why just the fact that he was gay made him a bad person because basically he was a good person. He couldn’t figure that out,” Griffith said.
The pressure of harboring his painful secret, exacerbated by school and church, finally broke Bobby down, and his senior year he made a half-hearted suicide attempt, trying to overdose on aspirin. That night as he slept, sedated by the aspirin, his brother divulged his secret to their parents.
The news shook the family. “My only concern was that he was going to go to hell if he didn’t repent, if God didn’t cure him,” said Griffith said. “I thought I was going to hell if Bobby didn’t repent.”
Griffith enrolled her son in religious counseling at Walnut Creek Presbyterian Church, where the counselor tried to change him to a heterosexual. “Bobby prayed and really thought God would answer his prayers. We all prayed when we went to church. Bobby really believed that God was going to cure him,” said his mother.
But religious counseling could not change Bobby. When he turned 18, Bobby ashamedly began exploring the gay community, going on dates and having sex. “He says, ‘I guess I’ve chosen sin over righteousness.’ He said, ‘What really bothers me is the fear of going to Hell and the fear that I’m following Satan instead of God,’ ” said Griffith. “He was brought up to believe that . . . and so was I.”
Bobby’s shame made days at Las Lomas both lonesome and terrifying. In his diaries he expressed recurring fear that his classmates would expose him, his teachers humiliate him. Finally he decided he couldn’t take high school anymore. He dropped out two months before graduation. “He just didn’t want to have to deal with Las Lomas because he was constantly afraid that someone would know about him being gay. The way he put it was, ‘There’s not anything there for me.’ Then he contradicted that and said, ‘No, there’s just very little of me there.’ “
In February 1983 Bobby escaped to Oregon where he lived with his gay cousin, Janette, and worked in a convalescent home as a nurse’s aide. Nights and weekends he spent at bars, in the accepting atmosphere of Portland’s liberal gay community. But even that environment couldn’t shake his guilty conscience. Six months later he returned home to visit his family. It was the last time they would see him alive.
“He looked like he had given up, like he was just going through the motions,” his mother said. “Bobby just became very discouraged because I was still … we were still hoping that Bobby would change, that God would come to his rescue. I would constantly say, ‘Bobby, you can change if you want to.’ That’s a horrible thing to do to a child. I just thought he wasn’t trying hard enough,” Griffith said.
Now, 12 years after Bobby’s death, the question remains: could it happen all over again — or have the times really changed?
Las Lomas Homosexuals Speak Out
“I’m not going to worry about the ‘jocks.’ They’re not important in my life. And if they create a hostile environment, I don’t notice it,” exclaimed sophomore Caroline Hostetler. With pink curly hair and pointy Dame Edna glasses, it’s hard to not notice Caroline, a bisexual and self-proclaimed “hardcore feminist.” Her shocking appearance and assertive demeanor provide a stark contract to those of diffident Bobby.
Yet, like Bobby, Caroline traveled a bumpy road before she found happiness and self-acceptance. Growing up, she thought “it was just a part of being straight, being turned on by girls, by women. And then as I got older I started realizing it was more than sexual feelings. I was having these deep emotional connections with other women.” In eighth grade at Foothill Middle School, a throng of classmates accosted Hostetler and her bisexual friends. They pushed her and shouted gay epithets. “That incident made me realize that I was gay,” said Caroline, “and that I had to come out and be happy with myself, that I couldn’t let other people silence me and keep me down.”
Caroline has since come out to her parents, who accept her yet feel uneasy about her sexuality. “I don’t want to say that they don’t accept it because they do accept it. I just don’t think that they’re 100-percent comfortable having someone this close being in that situation. There was a time when my mother even said that the idea of two women together grossed her out,” she said. “It was hurtful for a little while, but I have to accept that and I can’t let it bug me. She’s being honest with me.”
Caroline admits, though, that her parents uneasiness with her sexuality left her feeling isolated and insecure. For validation, she turned to the Pacific Center, a gay teen support group in downtown Walnut Creek. “I felt the need to know that there were other people like me,” she said. “At the Pacific Center I could talk about things in an environment where I wouldn’t have people objecting to everything I said because they didn’t accept me.”
After a few months at the Pacific Center, Caroline, once an ardent supporter of gay pride, decided to abandon gay activism in favor of a more low-key approach to herself and her sexuality. “Afterwards, I ended up hating the Pacific Center because I didn’t need that anymore because I stopped believing in gay pride. Gay pride makes gays stand out as different — ‘Wow! Look at me! I’m different!’ But I’m not different from anyone because I’m gay,” she said. “People really do pick up on the way you treat yourself. If you give yourself a positive image, other people are going to pick up on that and treat you positively.”
Though uninterested in activism, Caroline did agree to appear on Straight Talk ’n’ Teens, a local TV show which aired a segment last month on gay youth. “We talked about some good issues and I was really surprised by the acceptance of the audience. I totally thought it would be ignorant and we only heard one negative thing,” she said.
Caroline acknowledges that not all gay teens would feel comfortable being as out and open as she is. She advises teens who want to come out to make sure they are emotionally ready before doing so. “What’s most important is who you’re in the closet to. Are you in the closet to yourself, to your parents, to your friends, to the world? And who’s going to stick by you? I think the first thing is coming out to yourself, and as soon as you come out to yourself — as soon as you’re confident of yourself — you can deal with things.”
“I’ve grown tremendously since I was a freshman — mentally emotionally, and physically,” bragged junior Damian Sessions, patting his ever-growing gut. Indeed the six-foot junior varsity volleyball center with long flaming red hair has been through an emotionally difficult period since his freshman year, when he realized he was bisexual.
After playing a cruel prank on his ex-girlfriend, telling her that she made him gay, Damian began to realize his feelings for a male friend went beyond friendship. “I was like, ‘Well, do I really have feelings for him? I think I might,’ ” he said. “I was scared. I was confused. I was frantic at one point. It took about a month and a half of soul-searching and just looking and asking and thinking about it. Finally I came to the decision that yes, it is acceptable, and yes, I am bi.”
Damian, too, has received the support of his parents. “My mom’s cool with it. She thinks it might be a phase, but she’s willing to entertain the notion that it’s not. But I know that I am because I’ve had deep crushes on several different guys,” he said, although he admits his dating life has been just as bad with the guys as it has been with the ladies. “It’s a very real thing. I don’t do it just because it’s cool or it’s in style. It’s just who I am.”
Damian’s comment acknowledges a salient difference between socially accepted behavior nowadays and that of 12 years ago. When Bobby attended Las Lomas, the “invisible kids,” as Mary Griffith describes them, were enigmas — isolated and unaccepted. Yet today homosexuals are increasingly out in the open and in some respects en vogue, admired for being “alternative.”
As one student told Damian, reflecting the new degree of social acceptance for homosexuality: “I honestly don’t have a problem with them unless they hit on me or something, ya know? But if they start thinking I’m going to have sex with them, then they’re crossing the line right there because I’m personally not into that kind of s—.”
“Well,” responded Damian, “it’s fine by me, but it’s a little bit of an ignorant comment. Acceptance at Las Lomas is adequate but not optimum.”