Witness

A blog about forensic psychology

Research: Romney's Anti-Gay Assault Fits Typical Pattern

Antigay behaviors common, enforce gender norms.

Romney then

Exposed for physical and verbal abuse of gay classmates during high school, U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney trivialized the incidents as "pranks" and "dumb things," and claiming not to know the boy he assaulted was gay.

To me, his response came as no surprise. This is precisely what most gay-bashers think and say, according to my research on the motivations of perpetrators.

In the first empirical research into prevalence rates of and motivations for antigay harassment and violence by noncriminal young adults, I found antigay behaviors like Romney's to be alarmingly commonplace. One in 10 young adults in the politically liberal San Francisco Bay Area admitted to physical violence or threats against presumed homosexuals, and another 24 percent acknowledged name-calling. The percentages were even higher among young men. The frequency of self-acknowledged antigay behaviors among a general population sample was consistent with victim studies in which large proportions of lesbians and gay men report sexuality-related victimization.

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Like Mitt Romney, most gay-bashers with whom I conducted followup interviews insisted that they were not motivated by hatred of homosexuals. This despite the fact that many of their assaults fell within legal definitions of a hate crime. Many, like Romney, were instead acting as self-appointed enforcers of gender norms for male and female behavior.

Washington Post reporter Jason Horowitz was able to track down five former classmates of Romney’s who gave similar accounts of how Romney led a "vicious" assault against a closeted gay classmate at his prestigious boarding school in Michigan. The victim, John Lauber, was "perpetually teased for his nonconformity and presumed homosexuality." Romney reportedly became incensed about Lauber’s bleached-blond hair that draped over one eye:

"He can’t look like that. That’s wrong. Just look at him!" an incensed Romney told Matthew Friedemann, his close friend in the Stevens Hall dorm, according to Friedemann's recollection. Mitt, the teenage son of Michigan Gov. George Romney, kept complaining about Lauber's look, Friedemann recalled.

A few days later, Friedemann entered Stevens Hall off the school's collegiate quad to find Romney marching out of his own room ahead of a prep school posse shouting about their plan to cut Lauber's hair. Friedemann followed them to a nearby room where they came upon Lauber, tackled him and pinned him to the ground. As Lauber, his eyes filling with tears, screamed for help, Romney repeatedly clipped his hair with a pair of scissors.

"It happened very quickly, and to this day it troubles me," said [Thomas] Buford, the school's wrestling champion, who said he joined Romney in restraining Lauber. Buford subsequently apologized to Lauber, who was "terrified," he said. (Buford later became a prosecutor. )

Soon after the incident, Lauber disappeared, expelled for smoking a cigarette. He died of liver cancer in 2004.

Romney now

In defending himself, Romney told Fox News that he "had no idea what that individual's sexual orientation might be."

But that misses the point.

In my in-depth interviews with antigay assailants, all insisted that their assaults were not driven by animus toward homosexuals. Rather than punishment of homosexuality per se, their assaults on presumed homosexuals were aimed at punishing those who violated mandatory sex role norms. Boys who do not conform to expected gender norms are labeled very early on as "sissies" or "fags" and subjected to merciless bullying. This peer policing is a very effective way of enforcing hierarchical gender relations.

By wearing his hair in a feminine manner, Lauber had violated the antifemininity norm that is part of the bedrock of traditional masculinity, which apparently dominated at the elite Cranbrook School.

Romney's verbal denigration of another former classmate, also a closeted homosexual, fits this same pattern. When Gary Hummel tried to speak up in English class, Romney shouted “atta girl!” at him, Hummel told the Post.

So, Romney's assaultive and bullying conduct was not so much to punish Lauber and Hummel for being gay as for being different, for having the audacity not to conform to his chest-thumping notions of manliness. This contempt for insufficiently masculine men is a core feature of our culture, helping to explain Romney's self-righteousness and his facile dismissal of his harmful conduct as innocent hijinks.

Karen Franklin, Ph.D., is a forensic psychologist in Northern California.

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