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Romney to limit gay panel activities

Is upset that his name is used to tout parade

Angered that his name appeared on a press release touting a gay pride parade, Governor Mitt Romney moved yesterday to curtail the activities of a 14-year-old advisory commission on gay and lesbian youth.

The commission chairwoman, Kathleen M. Henry, said she was called yesterday by Beth Myers, the governor's chief of staff, who told her that the governor planned to issue an executive order ''revoking our existence" and creating another youth commission whose purview would be all of the state's youth, not just gays and lesbians. The commission would have all new members, she said.

But a few hours later, Myers called again, Henry said, and said the governor had switched course.

''He changed his mind," said Henry, who heads a 14-member panel. ''We inundated them with outrage. It just plumed everywhere."

Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom insisted that the governor's office received no such calls from gay rights activists, but opted against abolishing the commission because ''the governor thought that was too harsh."

''Instead, we're directing the commission not to use taxpayer money for parades and parties and to refocus their resources on counseling and the development of strategies for the prevention of violence and suicide," Fehrnstrom said. ''That is in keeping with the original mission of the commission."

Commission backers insisted that Romney's ban on use of taxpayer money for parades was hollow because private money pays for those events.

The commission was created by Governor William Weld in 1992 to help gay and lesbian youths in school, where they face increased risk of victimization, harassment, and discrimination. The commission's work focuses primarily on violence and suicide prevention. A youth committee also organizes an annual youth pride parade. The 12th annual parade will take place tomorrow.

Administration sources said Romney's aides were angered by an ''unauthorized" news release issued by the commission March 27 announcing this weekend's Youth Pride parade. The release, which described the celebration of ''gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth and their supporters," went out on official state stationery, with the names of Romney and Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey appearing with the names of the commission chairwoman and vice chair.

Conservative activist Brian Camenker said he met with Romney aides last week, showing them photos from last year's parade, and urged them to abolish the panel.

''Last year [at the parade] they had boys in fishnet stockings and high heels parading down Boylston Street," Camenker said. ''They had boys dressed as women embracing. We presented stuff, and they were visibly sickened by what they saw. I said, basically, this group has to go. It's so manifestly destructive to kids that you have to get rid of it. They said they'd do something."

Allowing the commission to remain in existence demonstrates ''pure cowardice on the governor's part," he said. ''This shows that Romney probably doesn't have what it takes to run the country if he can't even make a decision about this."

Henry said she believed that Romney originally buckled under pressure from Camenker's group, the Article 8 Alliance, but then bowed to equally strong pressure from gay rights supporters.

''They swamped him with e-mails and letters and calls," she said, referring to the Article 8 Alliance. ''They were outraged that we use the word 'transgender' in our press release," she said.

Henry was appointed by Acting Governor Jane Swift five years ago and named chairwoman by Romney in 2004.

According to Henry, the parade is not paid for by taxpayers. A nonprofit group, which she identified as the Friends of the Governor's Commission, raises money to support the annual event. The commission does receive state funding for its other programs -- roughly a half-million dollars -- from the Department of Public Health and the Department of Education. Several years ago, Henry said, the commission received $1.2 million in state funds.

The commission pays to train administrators, teachers, and student leaders to create a safe environment for gay and lesbian students. It supports community drop-in centers, and works with the Department of Education to train teachers to comply with antidiscrimination laws, she said.

In an interview, Henry said she is concerned that the governor's restrictions may prevent the commission from helping transgender and bisexual youths. ''The transgender kid is probably at greater risk than others," she said. The commission has wanted to include transgender and bisexual in its name, but has not been permitted to.

''The fear is that he's going to restrict the parameters of our scope and our outreach to bisexual and transgender kids," she said.

Several legislators and gay rights activists slammed Romney and pledged to take steps to ensure the commission continues as an independent group.

''I will be filing legislation to create the commission legislatively so its mission to reduce teen violence and suicide among teenagers is protected and does not fall prey to the political whims of a governor who would be president," said Senator Jarrett Barrios, Democrat of Cambridge.

Representative Liz Malia of Brighton, who attended a fund-raiser for the Friends of the Governors Commission last night, called Romney's action ''very upsetting for all of us."

Malia met yesterday with Fehrnstrom, who told her ''the governor would like to take it in a different direction with all youth, and not gay and lesbian youth," she said. ''We're not quite sure what the outcome will be. But this is something that is a life-saving mechanism for a lot of kids who are at risk in our communities."

Representative Carl M. Sciortino Jr., Democrat of Somerville, addressed the crowd: ''We have a governor that would rather use our kids in Massachusetts and put their lives at risk so he can run for president. Shame on him," he said, sparking applause and cheers.

He read aloud a proclamation signed by Romney declaring May 17, 2003, gay-straight youth pride day.

Russell Nichols of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Andrea Estes can be reached at estes@globe.com.

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