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Romney a wimp? Not so much, say gays who engaged with him as governor

Posted by Jim Lopata  September 11, 2012 01:10 PM

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Note: The following story is adapted from the September/October 2012 issue of Boston Spirit magazine.

By Scott Kearnan

It was 2004, after the Supreme Judicial Court had cleared the way for same-sex couples to obtain marriage licenses in Massachusetts. Governor Mitt Romney remained a roadblock, endorsing a constitutional amendment that would ban it.

Julie Goodridge and other plaintiffs in the landmark case had written a letter to the governor, asking for a meeting. He ignored it, so they staged a press conference at his office to read the letter to the media. That, finally, got them through his door. Once inside, they were shocked.

For about 20 frustrating minutes, say those in attendance who Boston Spirit interviewed recently, they shared their stories, pled their case, and tried to explain how equal marriage would protect them and their families. Romney sat stone-faced and almost entirely silent.

“Is there anything else?” Romney asked when they finished. With that, the meeting was over.

“It was like talking to a robot. No expression, no feeling,” recalls David Wilson, one of the plaintiffs in the case who met with Romney that day. “People were sharing touching stories, stories where you’d expect recognition in the other person’s face that they at least hear what you’re saying — that there’s empathy. He didn’t even shake his head. He was completely blank.”

Occasionally Romney would say something.

“I didn’t know you had families,” remarked Romney to the group, according to Wilson.
The offhanded remark underscored that Romney, the governor of the first state prepared to grant same-sex marriage, hadn’t taken the time to look at what the landmark case was really about. By this point the plaintiff’s stories had been widely covered by national media — in particular, Julie Goodridge’s heartrending tale of how her then-partner, Hillary, was denied hospital visitation following the precarious birth of daughter Annie. It was the ignorance of these facts — and Romney’s inaccurate, insensitive answer to her parting question, that pushed Julie Goodridge to her breaking point.

“I looked him in the eye as we were leaving,” recalls Goodridge. “And I said, ‘Governor Romney, tell me — what would you suggest I say to my 8 year-old daughter about why her mommy and her ma can’t get married because you, the governor of her state, are going to block our marriage?’”

His response, according to Goodridge: “I don’t really care what you tell your adopted daughter. Why don’t you just tell her the same thing you’ve been telling her the last eight years.”

Romney’s retort enraged a speechless Goodridge; he didn’t care, and by referring to her biological daughter as “adopted,” it was clear he hadn’t even been listening. By the time she was back in the hallway, she was reduced to tears.

“I really kind of lost it,” says Goodridge. “I’ve never stood before someone who had no capacity for empathy. It went behind flat affect. It was a complete lack of ability or motivation to understand other people.”

While Goodridge cried, Romney brought the press into his office to give his take on the meeting.

He described it as, “Pleasant.”

‘HE COMPLETELY LACKS EMPATHY’

Romney has often been characterized as a flip-flopper, a stiff suit, and an out-of-touch elitist. That’s not news. And he’s been a disappointment on LGBT issues — that’s clear, as well. The man who promised he’d be “better than Ted [Kennedy] for gay rights” during his 1994 senate race now opposes equal marriage and even civil unions — which in 2012, are increasingly seen as a compromise position.

But less explored is how Romney’s personality intersected with his policies on LGBT issues. How did he treat gay couples when his back was against the wall on same-sex marriage in Massachusetts? How did he rationalize dismissing well-regarded LGBT government officials during his governorship? Why did he deny important anti-bullying resources to queer youth? The answers, it seems, are: Poorly. He didn’t. And because he wanted to.
Speaking with those locally who had experience knowing, meeting with, or working with Romney, a few commonly held perceptions emerge. Perhaps the most common is that Romney seems generally disinterested in others, and has trouble connecting with anyone unlike him — whether in terms of lifestyle, economic class, or sexuality. Some share stronger words.

“He completely lacks empathy,” says Goodridge, speaking this time about her own experience meeting the governor.

Romney and the dissolution of the Governor’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth
That lack of empathy plays out in Romney’s tendency to gloss over incidents that are distressing to the gay community. Take the time he tried to dismantle the Governor’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth. The Commission, established in 1992 by Republican Governor William Weld, was intended to specifically address youth-related issues like anti-gay harassment and teen suicide. Its work, which included teacher trainings and supporting community drop-in centers, became a model for similar organizations nationwide.

At first Romney seemed as though he’d be an ally to the Commission, says Kathleen Henry, who chaired the Commission during Romney’s administration. Romney released official proclamations recognizing Youth Pride, and in his inauguration expressed the importance of defending civil rights regardless of, among other things, sexual orientation.
“I opened almost every meeting reading that [passage from Romney’s inauguration], like it was a prayer,” recalls Henry. “I’d say, ‘This is what our governor believes.’”

Then in May 2006, Henry got a phone call from Romney’s chief of staff. A Commission press release touting the Youth Pride parade had been sent out on stationery that included the governor’s name in its sidebar. This placed Romney’s name on the same page as the word “transgender.” He was not happy. He was going to shut down the Commission. Just like that. The end.

Henry’s heart sank. Suicide prevention programs, support for Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA), training administrators to establish “safe school” practices for gay youth — all of that was “flashing before my eyes,” says Henry, who was only hours away from a Commission fundraiser at the Omni Parker House when she received the call. Luckily, political allies leapt to the Commission’s defense, and within hours Romney reversed his order to dismantle the group. In response, Henry worked with the Massachusetts Legislature to hurriedly create the Massachusetts Commission on GLBT Youth, which would exist independent of the governor’s office.

Once that was established, Romney dismantled the original Commission as a redundancy. Then something strange happened. Henry’s phone rang again, it was Romney himself calling, and the tone was very different.

“It was the only time I had received a call from him,” recalls Henry. “He said he wanted to personally express his gratitude, to thank me for my service, and to make sure we understood it was a redundancy now for the Commission to exist.” There was no mention that, only months earlier, he had planned to eliminate that very commission because his name was on its press release.

“It was as if nothing had happened,” says Henry. “When he was done with his lovely speech, I thanked him and said, ‘Governor, this is very gentlemanly of you.’ It kind of took his breath away, the tone in my voice.”

“He knew I was shaking my head as if to say, ‘Who are you?’”

ROMNEY AND THE STONEWALLING OF THE ANTI-BULLYING GUIDE

Later that month, Romney’s administration attempted to squash another youth-oriented effort over inclusive language: the publication of a 120-page anti-bullying guide for public schools. The guide had already endured one setback, in 2003, when Romney de-funded the Governor’s Task Force on Hate Crimes, which was responsible for the guide. Activist Don Gorton, who continued to work on the report anyway, approached an enthusiastic Commission on GLBT Youth for $10,000 in production costs, and he authored a seemingly final version by May 2006.

Then, another blow: word from the administration that the anti-bullying guide would suddenly need to undergo a significantly more extensive review process. That was the excuse given at the time, says Gorton. But what was the real reason? Newly unearthed e-mails between officials at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health show that the administration objected to the words “bisexual” and “transgender” in certain passages of the anti-bullying guide.

Gorton eventually saw the anti-bullying guide to eventual publication. Ten thousand copies of an updated version were released in 2008 under Governor Deval Patrick’s administration.

Gorton connects Romney’s obstructionist stance toward the anti-bullying guide with other bullying incidents tied to the former governor. This includes The Washington Post’s recent revelations of Romney’s own role in bullying. Allegations that during his prep school days, Romney held down a gay classmate and forcibly cut his bleached hair – worn in a fashion deemed effeminate — while classmates cheered. Romney has publicly stated that he doesn’t remember the incident, while simultaneously apologizing for any “dumb mistakes” made in his school days.

“It knocked the wind out of me,” says Gorton on hearing the story of Romney’s bullying tale.

ROMNEY AND HIS COURTING OF GAY REPUBLICANS

The story from Romney’s schoolyard days echoed another incident that Gorton once observed in an adult Romney. It was at a 2003 fete held by the Log Cabin Republicans, a group for LGBT Republicans, to honor William Weld, recalls Gorton. Romney was politely greeted by one of the attendees, who remarked that it was good to see the increasingly scarce governor at a Log Cabin event. Gorton can’t recall the governor’s exact response, but he recalls Romney making a limp-wrist motion and replying with an affected stereotypical lisp. This was, assumed Gorton, an attempt to be funny and charming. It seemed more like unintended evidence that Romney’s sense of appropriateness hadn’t much evolved since his prep school days.

Romney’s fervent aversion to even mere mentions of transgender issues, and the revealing excerpts from his personal biography, make clear that Romney has an especially strong problem with non-traditional gender expression, say those who have had dealings with him over the years. That’s consistent with a more general observation that he seems either unable or unwilling to connect on an interpersonal level with those who are unlike him. Which is consistent, remark observers, with Romney’s behavior of being willing to align himself — at least when it was politically advantageous during political campaigns — with Log Cabin Republican-type groups, where leadership positions are often held by white males who could “pass” as straight in casual social settings.

“He seemed more uncomfortable with the fact that people might be drinking wine than that they were gay,” recalls Michael Motzkin, former president of the Massachusetts Log Cabin Republicans. Motzkin says that while he is disappointed that some of Romney’s social policies aren’t where they should be, he never sensed that the former governor had a strong personal issue with his gayness. In fact, Romney supported Motzkin in his unsuccessful 2004 campaign for state representative. Romney publicly endorsed Motzkin (and another openly gay candidate, Richard Babson), fundraised for him, and even appeared with Motzkin on a mail piece.

And in contrast to his meeting with Julie Goodridge, David Wilson, and the other plaintiffs in Massachusetts’ landmark equal marriage case, it was in a meeting with prominent LGBT Republicans during his gubernatorial run that Romney showed at least some sympathy for the equal marriage movement — though for reasons that are telling on their own.
The meeting was at Dedo, a now-closed gay piano bar in Bay Village, recalls Josh Friedes, who was invited to attend as advocacy director for the Massachusetts Freedom to Marry Coalition. (He’s now a director at Equal Rights Washington.) At the meeting, attendees shared with Romney personal stories that emphasized the need for equal marriage. It’s the emotional appeal of such stories that are usually most effective at swaying hearts and minds, says Friedes. But Romney was unmoved by them. “I came away with the realization that he simply did not see gay and lesbian families as being similar to his family, and was not able to draw analogies between experiences,” recalls Friedes.

Yet economic concerns like tax inequalities and inheritance issues did seem to concern Romney. “He made clear that he was willing to listen to business leaders about the issue of family recognition,” says Friedes. “The impression was that if business leaders told him certain benefits and protections would increase the productivity of gay workers, he would be open to supporting those. … It was not really about what these protections would do for gay families, but what they would do for the titans of industry.”

The inference was “almost crass,” says Friedes. Though he says he’s not sure Romney intended to be offensive. “It felt like there was a lord/serf relationship,” remembers Friedes.

ROMNEY AND THE GAYS WITH WHOM HE WORKED

Many of those who served under Romney’s feudal system aren’t exactly keen to relive their experiences. Boston Spirit reached out to a number of other former and current government officials who worked under the governor’s administration, as well as several prominent gay Republicans who supported Romney political campaigns at various points. Most were unwilling to comment on their experiences, some alluding that they were tainted by elements of homophobia they’d rather not revisit — or that they feared burning bridges that could jeopardize their livelihoods.

“It would be great if more people would ask Mitt Romney to be accountable, but people tend to weigh the pros and cons of that. And when the cons are your career and public perception, you understand why people don’t,” says Ardith Wieworka.

But Wieworka will. She spent eight successful years as commissioner of the state’s Office of Child Care Services under multiple Republican governors. By all accounts well-liked and highly regarded by the constituents she served, Wieworka was very publicly fired two years into Romney’s term as governor. At the time, the administration offered conflicting reasons for her dismissal. A clear reason never emerged. So what had happened to explain her firing?

Quite possibly, it was a May 2004 announcement that Wieworka would soon marry her partner, Carol Lyons, following the arrival of equal marriage in Massachusetts. During this time Romney was in D.C., courting conservatives on the national stage by decrying what was happening in his home state.

“As an out lesbian for a very long time in state government, it was an uncomfortable position to have the leader of your state testifying so vehemently against basically who you are,” says Wieworka. Over the summer, she was fired.

The following year a second woman, Katherine Abbott, former commissioner of the Department of Conservation and Recreation, was also asked to resign shortly after marrying her female partner — ostensibly over “poor shoveling.” Abbott didn’t respond to interview requests.

The 2012 resignation of Romney spokesperson Richard Grinnell — who was essentially forced out following anti-gay backlash and with little defense from his boss — bears shades of similarity to the ousting of Wieworka.

Wieworka has declined to comment to national press about her experience with the Romney administration. But she thought it was important to speak to Boston Spirit. Was she fired for being gay? For wedding her partner while her boss was actively trying to distance himself from any endorsement of the equal marriage movement? That’s hard to prove, Wieworka knows. But she feels it in her bones, and believes it to be so. And she’ll never forget what, upon her firing, she was told by the administration.

They said they wanted someone more “like them,” she says. [x]

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author: Boston Spirit Magazine’s daily blog brings you all of the information you need on New England’s LGBT community. In addition to highlighting local and national LGBT news, we will also highlight local leaders from the worlds of business, politics, fashion and entertainment and keep you up-to-date on all the latest events and parties, hot spots for travel, shopping, dining, and more!
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