Former governor Mitt Romney’s administration in 2006 blocked publication of a state antibullying guide for Massachusetts public schools because officials objected to use of the terms “bisexual’’ and “transgender’’ in passages about protecting certain students from harassment, according to state records and interviews with current and former state officials.
Romney aides said publicly at the time that publication of the guide had been delayed because it was a lengthy document that required further review. But an e-mail authored in May of that year by a high-ranking Department of Public Health official - and obtained last week by the Globe through a public records request - reflected a different reason.
“Because this is using the terms ‘bisexual’ and ‘transgendered,’ DPH’s name may not be used in this publication,’’ wrote the official, Alda Rego-Weathers, then the deputy commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
Because the Department of Public Health was the primary sponsor and funding source of the guide, the move effectively blocked its publication. Rego-Weathers said in the e-mail that she had been consulting with Romney’s office on the issue.
Stifling the guide’s publication was among steps that Romney and his aides took during his last year in office to distance the Republican governor from state programs designed to specifically support gays, lesbians, and bisexual and transgender people. His critics said it was part of an effort to court social conservatives as he prepared for his first campaign for president in 2008.
“Romney put his own political interests ahead of the safety of vulnerable youth,’’ said Don Gorton, a gay-rights advocate and author of the 120-page antibullying report, which was not printed and distributed until after Romney left office.
Rego-Weathers, who is now a Rhode Island state official, declined to comment. Kerry Healey, former lieutenant governor, who was among officials who had supported publication, also declined to comment. Healey, a special adviser to Romney’s 2012 campaign for president, referred questions to the campaign. Asked to respond, the campaign did not offer any new comment, referring instead to old Romney administration statements from 2006.
About 10,000 copies of the 120-page “Guide to Bullying Prevention’’ were ultimately published in 2008, during Democrat Deval Patrick’s first term in office. It contains advice for school administrators and teachers on how to curb bullying, cyberbullying, and hazing. A two-page section describes how gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth are frequent targets of bullying, and it offers contact information to find help.
The 2006 e-mail objecting to the “bisexual’’ and “transgender’’ language offers some of the clearest evidence of how some of Romney’s actions in office aligned with the goals of socially conservative activists, a key constituency in Republican presidential primary elections.
Many of the nation’s largest conservative, evangelical, and profamily organizations-such as the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, and Concerned Women for America - have opposed suicide prevention and antibullying programs intended to protect gay teens because they say such programs promote homosexual activity.
“These programs were pushing a radical agenda. They were trying to indoctrinate people on the issue of sexual preference. Romney did the right thing by finally pushing back,’’ Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family institute, said in an interview.
In a highly publicized incident in May 2006, Romney threatened to shut down the Governor’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth because it issued a press release with his name on it promoting a parade to celebrate gay, bisexual, and transgender teens. He quickly backed off the threat. In July 2006, Romney vetoed a $158,000 budget line item that was earmarked for counseling violence victims in the “LGBT community.’’ The appropriation was intended to prevent sexual violence and rape, and also for suicide prevention.
The move to block the bullying report immediately followed Romney’s threat to shut down the Gay and Lesbian Youth Commission. On May 20, 2006, the commission chairwoman, Kathleen Henry, e-mailed Rego-Weathers to say that “she had heard from the lead’’ on the antibullying guide project that “the plan is to go to print next week on the authority of the lieutenant governor.’’
Rego-Weathers e-mailed a subordinate the same day raising the objections to “bisexual’’ and “transgender’’ references. “I have raised this issue with the governor’s office and am awaiting final clearance,’’ she wrote. “If the printing must go on, I may have to ask that our name be taken off.’’
Days after that exchange, Gorton said in an interview last week with the Globe, he was told that the draft would have to undergo a more extensive review process than previously planned. He said the administration’s real reason was not disclosed.
“They said that the review was going to be a few weeks, but it stretched out over a period of seven months,’’ Gorton said.
In October 2006, Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom, speaking with Bay Windows, a newspaper that covers New England’s gay community, denied that the delay had anything to do with politics.
“This is a lengthy document which bears the name of the governor’s office,’’ Fehrnstrom said, “and it is undergoing the normal review that a document of that length would go through.’’
Ejeris Dixon, deputy director of the Anti-Violence Project, a nonprofit advocacy organization in New York, said of the actions by Romney: “Transgendered people face extreme poverty, discrimination, and violence. When public officials refuse to enact legal protections or policies to assure their safety, they are further facilitating these things - intentionally or unintentionally.’’
The question of Romney’s sensitivity to antigay bullying was raised anew recently after the Washington Post published an account of Romney’s days in prep school in 1965 when Romney allegedly held a fellow student down against his will and, along with classmates and to the cheers of others, forcibly cut off his long, bleached-blond hair. The student was gay, although not openly, and it was unclear to some whether Romney knew the boy’s sexual orientation at the time. Romney said he could not recall the incident but apologized nonetheless.
Gorton, a longtime gay rights advocate, began work on the antibullying project while he was cochairman of the Governor’s Task Force on Hate Crimes. For Gorton, the guide was a personal mission. As a gay teen from Mississippi, he attempted suicide because of his isolation and social ostracism. “You don’t have any allies,’’ he said. “Nobody to take your side. Nobody to understand.’’
When Romney cut funding for the hate crimes task force early in his term, Gorton sought sponsorship and support for the unfinished guide from the governor’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth. Henry, who was then the commission’s chairwoman, said in an interview last week that the administration’s objection to use of the terms bisexual and transgender smacked of “censorship, and stigmatization, and prejudice.’’
Romney’s moves against the commission and the bullying report appeared to be part of a transformation for the one-term governor. When he ran for Senate in 1994 against the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Romney boasted that he would be a more effective and outspoken proponent of gay rights than Kennedy: “When Ted Kennedy speaks on gay rights, he’s seen as an extremist. When Mitt Romney speaks on gay rights, he’s seen as a centrist and a moderate,’’ Romney said at the time.Christopher Rowland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRowland.