It is striking how off-base liberals are about Mitt Romney's bullying a boy with long, dyed hair back in 1964, leading a gang to shear him like a lamb. From The New Yorker to MoveOn.Org, it's a given that this was gay-bashing, if only because the victim, John Lauber, lived his adult live as a gay man.
But they've got it wrong. As many men of a certain age can tell you, being jeered, poked, called "girl," and derided for how you looked -- if even minimally different -- was standard practice in post-war America. That this baiting, which sharply accelerated once the counter-culture hit home, had a homophobic aspect wasn't the main point.
In the America in which Romney grew up, gay people were shadowy, called "perverts," grouped with child molesters and peeping toms. Outside of a few big cities, they had no visible, human reality; they weren't represented in movies or on television, and very rarely even in serious fiction. What he and the other senior boys at Cranbrook were attacking in 1964 wasn't being "gay," as in a show like Glee, but rather any deviation from a tightly defined norm.
Here the political, the social and the cultural all fuse together in the politics of hair. It's difficult to explain to anyone younger than their mid-50s what a lightning rod "long hair" (or, for that matter, Afros) became in the sixties. White men up and down the spectrum of class, from a governor's son like Romney to the runty poor boys in my hometown, got viscerally angry if they saw another guy's hair curling over his ears, or, really bad, touching his shoulders.
So what I and my friends and our older brothers remember is how that anger ran into paired epithets like "hippie queer," "homo commie," and "nigger-loving faggot"... stuff like that.
When my older brother's friends got held down and scalped like John Lauber in gym class in 1968, with the PE teacher looking on approvingly, they were called "homos" and "hippies" interchangeably.
When my best friend, Philip, had water poured on his long hair by a teacher in seventh grade because he was "dirty," it was no different than if the teacher had called him a "sissy." Which he did, actually.
When all three of us (Philip, me, and our other friend, Darrell), high as kites, got caught on the main street of our town by some boys we knew from grade school, they tried to kick us into fighting by calling us "nigger-loving commie queers," as I remember it. Or was it "long-haired faggots"? No matter, it all ran together.
What's new to me is a rich preppie like Mitt getting just as violent as the "rednecks" I grew up with. I use that word deliberately, because in my hometown it was all about class, and that's what we called them. My brother and his friends were sons of English professors at the local college; my two friends, Darrell and Philip, were the sons of the college librarian and a highly-respected local teacher. The boys who pulled our hair and called us "girls" had a rough time in elementary school: I remember teachers beating them in the cloak room for infractions like "disrespect" and farting in class. Even in second grade, I knew that there wasn't a chance a teacher would lay a hand on me.
The message for me is that Mitt Romney could have been of those guys who wouldn't leave anyone alone, even among his own kind; if so, he would have called a girl a "slut" if she didn't wear undergarments, any boy with less than manly appearance a "freak" or a "fag," anyone with long, uncoiffed hair (up until Mitt got to grad school, when even Harvard MBAs grew it out, just like a young George W. Bush) a "hippie."
We had our own term for people like that: "straight," said with contempt. I stand by that one.
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