As Massachusetts governor, he underwent an evolution of his own, withdrawing support for a gay teen suicide prevention group.
Concerns among leaders of a Massachusetts suicide-prevention group for gays about the newly elected Republican governor seemed misplaced, at first.
In 2003 and 2004, Mitt Romney signed official proclamations supporting a gay-pride march sponsored by a nonprofit organization linked to the Massachusetts Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth. The following year, Romney proposed doubling the commission's budget.
But in 2006, when the nonprofit distributed a press release about the annual parade for "gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender" youth on official state stationery, Romney threatened to shut the commission down just days before the event. He quickly relented, but the near-death experience led the group to reorganize so that it no longer served at the pleasure of the governor.
"He was more supportive than we ever thought in the beginning," Kathleen Henry, chairwoman of the commission at the time and a current member, said in an interview. "It wasn't until what I would call a minor clerical snafu offended him that he nearly wiped us out of existence .... He took great exception to the fact that a letter with his name on it included the word 'transgender.'"
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The incident is worth revisiting in the wake of a Washington Post article detailing Romney's bullying of a presumably gay classmate when he was in prep school in Michigan in 1965. Former students say Romney, with help from friends, pinned down the classmate and cut off his bleached-blond, shaggy hair. Romney said on Thursday that he did not remember the incident but added that he had done "stupid things" in high school and apologized if he had hurt anyone.
While voters may disagree on what the incident reveals about Romney's character and whether it is relevant to his presidential campaign, his record is clear on issues related to gay youth, who are four times more likely to commit suicide than their peers, according to studies.
The governor's support for gay youth faded over the course of his four years in office, which activists on both sides of the debate view as the calculations of a politician from a liberal state positioning himself for the national stage. Distribution of an anti-bullying guide that included a section on gay kids floundered under his administration, and he cut some funding for suicide prevention at the end of his term. He served as chairman of the Republican Governors Association during his last year in office and began running for president the following year.
"There was a time when he didn't want to be seen as a bigoted homophobe, but he tried to craft a new, pro-family, conservative image when the pressure came," said Amy Contrada, research director of MassResistance!, a group advocating traditional families, which raised strong objections to the gay-pride parade and anti-bullying guide. "I don't trust him. I don't think he has any core principles about these issues at all."
The Massachusetts Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth was the first of its kind in the nation when it was created by then-Republican Gov. William Weld in 1993. When Romney ran for the U.S. Senate the following year, he backed a bill in Congress to create a panel aimed at preventing gay suicide. He was elected governor in 2002.