I'm going to give Mitt Romney the benefit of the doubt and assume, just this once, that he is short-sheeting the truth. If he really couldn't recall pinning a rumored-to-be-gay prep school classmate to the ground and clipping his longish, bleached-blond hair because he couldn't stand to look at it — "He can't look like that. That's wrong. Just look at him!" — wouldn't that be worse than remembering all too well and feeling sick about it?
The alternative is that the presumptive Republican presidential nominee so often bullied boys who stuck out that he can't keep them straight, so to speak. But I don't believe that. And really, who doesn't remember high school, sometimes in more vivid detail than we wish we did? (Yes, Alice Trapp, including that thing you said on the bus that time.)
In any case, I am not here to argue that this incident, disquieting as it is, is so unheard of that it makes Romney unfit for office some 48 years later. He was right to offer an apology, such as it was — "Back in high school, I did some dumb things, and if anybody was hurt by that or offended, obviously I apologize for that" — and I believe him when he says he is not that guy anymore.
What this incident speaks to, though, that's far more important than whatever it might say about Romney, is that it's exactly the sort of thing that happens all the time, in fine schools and bad ones, involving boys who grow up to be punks or even presidents. That is, kids who are gay or believed to be gay tend to get the brunt of abuse and, as a result, are at higher risk of attempting suicide.
My friend Lynn Hunter, a therapist who works with low-income teens in Kentucky and West Virginia, talks about the paradox of a youth culture in which there is, on one hand, so much more acceptance of homosexuality and bisexuality, yet even now "they're the kids who are bullied. You've got both realities. … For the girls, bisexuality almost works for them, because boys still like them and think that's hot. But for the guys, it's not."
Like Romney's target, they are seen as "just easy pickings." And if the former Massachusetts governor doesn't remember being cheered after leading the charge on the screaming, terrified boy, the man that boy grew into, who died in 2004, certainly never forgot it. John Lauber, who got the free haircut from Romney, told one of five classmates who remembered the incident in detail: "It was horrible. It's something I have thought about a lot since then."
And that's something I ask those who are none too happy about President Barack Obama's coming out in support of gay marriage to think about.
Would pulling down barriers to equality under the law really make violence against gay kids less likely? I'm not suggesting that the hothead on the playground — or the Rutgers freshman who so tragically set up a webcam to catch his gay roommate making out — is necessarily pondering such things. But in the long run, equal treatment does reduce the violence, because normalizing the status of gay couples is all of a piece; if the law can bully grownup versions of Lauber, of course that sets a standard and sends a message that bullying of all sorts is acceptable.
We can argue about the politics, the timing and even (or is that especially?) the Bible. But the big news really boils down to this: It was time. The president couldn't keep dribbling the ball without it looking like he was running out the clock. And if Vice President Joe Biden got a little ahead of himself and accelerated the timetable on Meet the Press — Ooh, I know a secret! — well, that's what we like about him.
I never thought Obama — or John Kerry, or Romney for that matter — was personally against marriage equality, and I am happy whenever an obvious baloney sandwich is written off as too stale to sell and tossed at last.
But there is a lot of truth left to be told on this topic, and the sooner the better.
Meanwhile, in this economy, I doubt the election is going to be about gay marriage, even at the margins. But like every election, it is going to be about trust: Do I believe what just flew out of that guy's mouth? Do I think he believes what he's saying?
It's in that way, more than anything, that coming out with his support for gay marriage is a help to Obama — and that pretending he doesn't remember what sounds like one of the worst moments of his life works against Romney.
Melinda Henneberger is a Washington Post political writer who anchors the She the People blog.
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