THE POLITICAL WORLD was rocked on May 10 by the revelation that the eighteen-year-old Mitt Romney and his “posse” attacked Cranbrook schoolmate John Lauber, whose long, bleach-blond hair, worn after the fashion of Veronica Lake, sparked ire in the future politician. With appalling force, a group that included the school’s wrestling champion pounced “like a pack of dogs” on an effeminate boy, whose distress manifested itself in loud screams, and forcibly cut his hair.
Romney claims that he doesn’t remember this specific incident but admits that he wasn’t a stranger to youthful “pranks.” His inability to remember this incident only compounds the impression that Romney has a deficit of empathy, that psychological mechanism that prevents most of us from wanting to hurt someone weaker than ourselves. Never realizing how badly he traumatized Lauber, Romney really may have filed the experience under “youthful hijinks” and forgotten about it. His accomplices, by contrast, registered the harm they caused and recalled the episode with remorse—which gives us some assurance that they’re now more sensitive to the suffering of others.
Romney’s attitude when explaining the incident was so cavalier that questions were bound to arise about the candidate’s ability to empathize with the experiences of unemployed workers, soldiers in combat, or victims of violent crime. For GLBT voters, this window on Romney’s formative years offers a preview of how he feels about us beneath his plastic packaging. The younger Mitt Romney acted out a belief that restrictive gender roles should be enforced by extralegal violence. This state of mind is ominous: it reverberates in the oral comments that victims of anti-transgender hate crimes attribute to their perpetrators, as I found in a 2011 study by the Anti-Violence Project of Massachusetts.
In the absence of meaningful accountability, one would hope for signs of progress in Romney’s attitude toward gay and lesbian people over the years. Instead, the actions of the eighteen-year-old are part of a lifelong pattern that suggests, in a nutshell, that deep down Romney harbors hostility to our community.
As governor of Massachusetts, Romney left a record of thwarting efforts to prevent the harassment of gay minors, a policy that takes on new significance in light of this youthful act of abusive bullying. Romney scuttled hate crimes prevention programming when he took office in 2003, and he laid off the staff responsible for an anti-bullying campaign started by his predecessor, Republican Jane Swift. He initially kept the landmark Governor’s Commission on Lesbian and Gay Youth alive, but with politically expedient maneuvering to the right in his last year in office, he curtailed the agency’s activities. When the legislature acted to give the Youth Commission a measure of autonomy, he abolished the entity created by a Republican governor, William Weld, back in 1992. Around the same time, he reached down to halt plans by the Department of Public Health to publish an anti-bullying “best practices guide” that explicitly addressed harassment of GLBT youth (after it came under fire by the religious Right).
John Lauber died in 2004 of liver cancer, but not before telling one of his assailants, when the latter came to apologize years later, that the memory was “horrible.” Research has shown that being bullied in adolescence contributes to pathological anxiety and depression that can last a lifetime. While perpetrators like Romney may have moved on and enjoyed rich and fulfilling lives, their victims may not be so lucky. A popular slogan assures young people that “It gets better,” but the truth is often otherwise.
When I write of the lasting impact bullying can have on a gay teen, I don’t rely entirely on academic research. As an anti-violence activist, I’ve talked to many adult survivors of bullying about the anguish of being bullied in childhood and how it continues to affect their lives today. I myself am still being treated for chronic depression and social anxiety that stem in part from the bullying that I experienced in the late 1960’s and 70’s. The long-term impact of bullying on its victims means that its effects will continue to reverberate for decades to come—until a generation comes along that decides to make it stop.
Don Gorton, a Boston lawyer who chairs the Anti-Violence Project of Massachusetts, co-authored Direct from the Field: A Guide to Bullying Prevention.