When Shawn Colvin’s 1998 album A Few Small Repairs came out, the enigmatic hit single “Sunny Came Home” had people guessing and postulating as to what the song was really about. The follow-up single, “Get Out of This House”, seemed pretty straightforward in comparison, your basic kicking-the-scum-to-the-curb anthem of female liberation. However, Colvin is never that simple; in a television interview, she revealed that the person she was ordering out of the house was herself. Enjoying her new success, Colvin had just bought her first home, but she still felt that she was unworthy of the luxury and kept having the sense that she needed to “get out of this house”.
Watching the interview, I thought, “Well, I never would have guessed that”. We have all had that feeling, the surprise of learning what one of our favorite songs, poems, or short stories is really about. For many of us, this happened frequently in literature classes (“Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is about what?”), as lit teachers elucidated on their particular theories of symbolism and metaphor.
Such lessons were revelatory, possibly, but they were hardly life-changing. Imagine, then, that the literature in question is the foundation for your world view, the doctrine that guides your actions, your beliefs, and your relationship to a higher being. What then? Do you reject the new explanation, clinging to the long-held principles that seemed to have been working so far, or do you reorder your entire concept of God, life, and the afterlife?
For two individuals, such questions forced them out of their comfortable lives, leading them to reevaluate all they had known or held as true. They are nothing alike, these two, one being a housewife and loving mother, and the other a television producer of a popular religious program. What these two had in common was a deeply felt religious conviction and strong adherence to the words of the Bible. Yet, both were forced to examine their religious teachings when all that they were taught about homosexuality began to ring false.
For Mary Griffith, the catalyst for this self-examination was the revelation by her son that he was gay and his subsequent suicide. For James Alexander Langteaux, it was the realization that his down-low homosexuality was a secret he could keep no longer from his bosses at Pat Robertson’s The 700 Club. Langteaux has told of his journey in the fascinating new book Gay Conversations with God, while Griffith’s tale is exposed in the exceptional Lifetime movie Prayers for Bobby (and yes, I realize that one normally doesn’t find the word “exceptional” paired with “Lifetime movie”, but the description is appropriate in this case).
Prayers for Bobby, just released on DVD, stars Sigourney Weaver as Griffith, and Weaver gives what is undeniably one of her best performances, scoring Emmy, SAG, and Golden Globe nominations for Best Actress (losing in all cases to one of the women from Grey Gardens). Set in the late ’70s through the mid-’80s, the film traces Griffith’s path from hardcore evangelical Christian to gay rights advocate. The Griffith family, on its surface, seems idyllic when the film opens, full of good humor, abounding love for one another, and deep spirituality. However, that idyllic setting is shattered when teen Bobby reveals that he is struggling with same-sex attractions.
This confession sends Griffith into overdrive. Determined that no son of hers will spend eternity in the fiery pits of Hell, Griffith takes her son to a counselor for reparative therapy, enrolls him in a youth group for troubled teens at the church, and prays with him and over him constantly. She fills his room with notes admonishing him to keep his focus on “curing” himself, and berates the young man for not trying hard enough to be “normal”.
In retrospect, it’s easy to condemn Griffith for her efforts, but one must recognize the perceptions of the time were that this was an acceptable approach to having a gay son. As misdirected as her efforts were, her intentions are pure — she’s fighting a war for the soul of her son, and her church is reinforcing how important it is that she win this war.
If Griffith is to be faulted, it’s for her failure to truly hear her son, a fault she eventually grows to acknowledge. Any attempt by Bobby to explain himself is met with accusations that he just isn’t doing the work he needs to save himself. Consequently, Bobby’s sense of isolation grows, to the point where he throws himself off an overpass into the path of an oncoming semi. (This isn’t a spoiler, as the DVD case reveals this element of the story. You are forewarned to have a box of tissues handy as you watch, though.) With Bobby’s death, Griffith’s worst nightmare has come true; her son died without cleansing himself of his sinful ways and must therefore be suffering indescribable horrors in Hell.
All of this happens within the first hour of the movie, with the second focusing on Griffith’s quest to understand her son’s fate. Along the way, she must reframe all that she knew about her religion. What if there were other translations for the passages condemning homosexuality? What if monks in the dark ages really did let the current social mores influence their transcriptions of the Bible? What if God doesn’t hate fags after all?
Griffiths exploration eventually leads her to PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), and the movie culminates in her speech before the local city council, in which she admonishes the local clergy to be mindful of the hatred they spew from the pulpit: “Before you echo ‘amen’ in your home and place of worship, think. Think and remember, a child is listening.” The film ends with her first march in a Gay Pride Parade as a PFLAG member in a scene sure to have you grabbing the tissues again (but in a good way).
The film’s DVD comes with bonus features including an interview with the real Mary Griffith, as well as the film’s stars and producers. Unfortunately, the extras focus too much attention on the making of the film, including the interview with Griffith, and not enough on the journey that Griffith underwent. I was looking forward to hearing Griffith provide insights on how she was able to transform her way of thinking; instead, she talks about meeting Weaver and the producer’s efforts in bringing the story to film. Also included in the bonuses are PSA announcements featuring Weaver and Daniel Radcliffe.
To the best of my knowledge, no one is planning on putting Langteaux’s story on film, although it would most likely make an interesting one. Langteaux spent five years working as a producer on The 700 Club, and saw and heard first-hand the homophobia that existed in that work environment. Some of what he witnessed is recalled in his new book, Gay Conversations with God: Straight Talk on Fanatics, Fags and the God Who Loves Us All, his third book, following God.com and God.net.
I met Langteauxat the Louisville Gay Pride Festival, where he had a booth and was selling copies of his latest book (although he was kind enough to give me a copy). Langteaux was willing to chat with me about his experiences for this piece, but time constraints made it impossible for us to find time (my fault, not his). The loss is mine, as he is a truly unique individual with a fresh perspective on the nature of God and His relationship with His LGBT children: “This is a God who is in fact holy, and it is his holiness that saves us, not ours.”
And for those who will fight this with all their hearts, those who will cringe at the possibility that God may not in fact hate fags, I think it may be time that you go and pack your bags. Because God isn’t needing your services any longer. Do I need to say this any more strongly?
Imagine if Quentin Crisp, Joel Osteen and e. e. cummings co-parented a child and you have a good idea of what James Alexander Langteaux’s writing style is like. Normal conventions of paragraphing, formatting, and punctuation are played with liberally, and the book sways between preaching James’ understanding of God’s love and recalling some of his sexual adventures (not in graphic porn detail, but to relate to a higher point that the adventure led him to discover). Gay Conversations with God goes to some length to discuss the Biblical foundation and Christian arguments for the hatred directed at gays and lesbians, reframing those passages that are so frequently quoted to show that perhaps they are not the condemnation that evangelical Christians claim them to be.
He also points out the hypocrisy of many churches. For example, he notes that while preachers rail against homosexuality, they have very little to say on the subject of divorce since “far fewer tithes would roll in. So we wink at the associate pastor and his lovely new wife. While we beat the homosexual within an inch of his wretched life.”
The book covers the whole of James’ life, not just his years working in television, which he discusses in more detail in his other books. Still, it’s the story that concludes the book that is most touching. Without spoilers, it involves a conversation Langteaux had with Twyla, a woman he met on a plane. Sitting beside her, he was quick to judge her as some wretched soul in a muumuu, while she apparently was judging him as some “dumb fag”. Despite having the feeling that God wanted James to talk to her, the two sat silent for most of the flight. When the walls of judgment finally came down, they had a life-transforming experience, so much so that James devoted the book to her.
Still, Gay Conversations with God isn’t 173 pages of preaching and heart-tugging stories. What makes it enjoyable to read is Langteaux’s sense of humor. At one point, he breaks away from the narrative to notify the reader that “the next chapter was going to be the big musical. I mean, what gay book is to be taken seriously without the grandeur and spectacle of an epic musical?” However, those plans are thwarted when the producers of Les Miserables refuse to allow him to reprint any of the lyrics from the musical in the book. His solution? “There are no copyright laws about humming! I could hint at the lyrics, remind you of the scene and you could all hum super quietly at home.” This is precisely what he does throughout the next chapter, pushing the boundaries as much as possible: “One day more! It’s ok, kids, we can legally use song titles. Just hum along as if it were a lyric.”
Both Langteaux and Griffith have become leading voices in the discussion about how one can align a deeply personal relationship with God and still be supportive of the LGBT community. Not only are they living examples of true Christian love, they are teaching others about the teachings of God. Even non-believers can learn lessons on the nature of love from these two. Still, there are those who would argue that both are wrong, that homosexuality is and will always be a path to eternal Damnation. When you hear those words, Langteauxhas some advice for you:
So when someone tells you that God Hates Fags — you can know in an instant that you are talking to the father of lies, because that God does not exist. Just the opposite — you are a treasure in your Father’s eyes.