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.
Romney distanced himself from the gay community after the state's supreme court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage in 2003, and he advocated a constitutional ban. Still, the commission continued its work.
"I think he was politically opportunistic," said Carly Burton, deputy director of MassEquality, a leading advocacy group for same-sex marriage. "He thought he needed to be more moderate to get elected, and once he saw marriage was such a hot-button issue, he realized he needed to stake his claim with the other side."
After MassResistance! brought the press release about the parade to Romney's attention in 2006, Henry got a call from Romney's chief of staff, Beth Myers, now one of his top campaign advisers. "She said the commission was no longer in existence," recalled Henry, who immediately notified the press and some sympathetic legislators, who organized a sit-in at the governor's office. "He was getting such feedback that hours later he backed off. It gives new meaning to the term flip-flop."
Myers did not return a phone call seeking comment and a campaign spokesman declined to comment on the incident. After the commission reorganized under the legislative branch instead of the executive, Romney disbanded the original group because it was duplicative. Henry was touched that he called to tell her personally. "I think he's conflicted about these things," she said. "He tends to be nice and polite to people, but he's also a pragmatist, and when confronted with a word like 'transgender' that can be scary and threatening, he was ready to throw everything out the window .... I don't think he ever got that this was about saving lives."
The anti-bullying guide lost its footing around the same time, according to Don Gorton, former cochairman of the Governor's Task Force on Hate Crimes and a former appellate tax commissioner who acknowledges he was fired by Romney. Romney abolished the hate-crimes task force, which surveyed middle school students and drafted the anti-bullying guide, in 2003. "The governor was pushing back against earmarks by legislators, and they viewed hate-crimes legislation as an earmark," Gorton said. "He was also starting to court evangelicals, and I think he saw anti-bullying efforts as expendable to appease the Religious Right."
Gorton and others continued to work on the guide but were unable to secure funding until after Romney left office. The public schools began distributing it under Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick in 2008. Two years later, the state passed anti-bullying legislation. Henry said she thinks Romney would have signed the bill. She added that she was shocked when she read about the hazing incident when Romney was in high school.
"My experience with him has been that he wants to do the right thing, so it's hard for me to believe that he doesn't remember holding a kid down and cutting his hair off," she said. "I would think you would carry that guilt with you forever."