I've lived through what Mitt Romney did to John Lauber.
The news coverage swirling around the disclosure that 47 years ago Mitt Romney took part in a vicious bullying assault on a gay classmate has, quite unexpectedly, stirred up strong memories and emotions for me.
I find it incredible to believe that he doesn't remember leading this attack - but whether he does or doesn't, I know that no one who is on the receiving end of a violent bullying assault can ever forget it.
Perhaps it is just because the circumstances are so similar, but as I've read and heard the descriptions of a group of young men in a dorm physically subduing, holding down and assaulting a young gay man for being different, I've been flooded with vivid memories and transported back to a time and place when the same thing happened to me, almost 36 years ago.
Mitt may have been able to forget his "incident", but I certainly never have.
In the fall of 1976, I was 18 - about a year older than Romney was in his story - a university freshman living in a college dorm.
I'd know I was gay for some time and never struggled with accepting my own identity. But at that point I hadn't yet decided how far "out" I wanted to be in my new situation - in a close living quarters where I knew no one, trying to adjust to life in a new city and an academically challenging situation. So while I explored the gay scene in the city, I opted not to advertise my sexual orientation until I became better acclimated to the social scene at school.
As the initial weeks went on, I began making a decent set of friends in the dorm, and was developing a reasonably comfortable gang of male and female buddies who I hung out with. At the same time, as I was sorting out who would be real friends and who would simply be acquaintances that I was sharing space with, I began interacting with a group of guys who lived on my floor - a group of engineering students who hung out together. They certainly weren't the guys I wanted to spend a lot of social time with, but in a small dorm, it was a friendly enough relationship - interacting in the TV room, in the dining hall, having a beer or a joint on occasion.
At some point, a couple of the guys began joking around with me, making sexual innuendos in conversations, joshing about hooking up, making mock sexual advances. I had actually heard them making similar jokes with each other fairly frequently, and realised that they had no idea I was gay, and that they would have been horrified if they knew they were carrying on these conversations with an actual gay man. Unsure about how to respond to this very strange turn of events, I returned the banter in a good-natured manner, never initiating the conversations or letting them go on too long, but returning the joking as it was offered.
I really don't know what was going through their heads at the time, so it was hard to figure out exactly what was driving this behaviour. I can guess lots of things - the joking was the straight boy way to enforce collective heterosexual norms, that it was how they humiliated other males they were competing for dominance with, group bounding, their own sublimation of homosexual desire, their subconscious realisation that I was different, their own uncertain masculinity - probably a combination of these and other things.
Within a couple of weeks, things escalated - the ring leader of the group seemed to get particular pleasure out of coming after me constantly with these comments - anytime I saw him in the hallway, in the shared bath/showers, in the public areas of the dorm, across campus. Unsure of how to react and exactly what was going on, I responded by matching him innuendo for innuendo, comment for comment - always responding, never instigating, but never backing away. I had no idea what was about to happen.
Late one night I was shooting pool alone when these 6 guys came in - without warning, they jumped me and wrestled me to the ground, stuck duct tape over my mouth, and dragged me to a nearby utility closet. I wasn't a small guy - 6'3", wiry but strong - but even though I struggled, against 6 equally strong guys my age, they easily subdued me.
I had no idea what was about to happen - I was legitimately terrified, frightened beyond belief. While I was pinned to the ground by guys on my arms and legs, they undid my belt and pulled off my pants, and pulled off my shirt. The leader of the group began talking - taunting me with sexual threats, going on and on about "if you like cock so much, we'll give you cock you'll never forget."
I was sure I was about to be raped. He then pulled out a set of scissors, got down on the ground next to me, put his hand on my genitals, and began cutting my pubic hair, hacking away at it and warning me that if I struggled too much, there was no telling what might "accidentally" get cut instead of just my pubes.
And, just as quickly as it began, it was done. They left me alone on the floor of the closet, crying on the floor, overwhelmed with humiliation and exhaustion from what had just happened.
Like many assault victims, I attempted simply to return to normal, pretending it never happened. The group of guys who had done it seemed to immediately know that they had gone far too far - they avoided being around me, wouldn't make eye contact when we were in the same place, and all the sexual banter ended. I went back to my routine of classes and hanging out with the more supportive group of friends, and spent increasing amounts of time off campus with gay friends.
While I don't remember a conscious decision driven by this event, I soon decided that I would not be in the closet at school. I began getting involved with the gay student group, coming out to my circle of friends, and proudly wearing pink triangle buttons on my coats. Within a year I was President of the gay student group, dating another guy in the dorm, and living a very open gay life.
About a year later, a female friend who was also friends with the ring leader of the gang who had attacked me took me aside to talk. She told me that "John" had asked her to talk to me, to let me know how badly he felt about what had happened, that they had no idea I was gay when they did this (as if it would be acceptable I were straight?). He had her ask if I would be open to sitting down with him to talk about it. Eventually we had an awkward meeting (with the female friend present as a "chaperone") where he tearfully apologised for "letting things get so out of hand".
Over the course of the next 3 years, every single one of the guys involved in the attack found a way to apologize to me in different ways - one in a long handwritten letter that I have kept to this day, one when he ran into me at the student union and sat down and bought me a beer and talking for hours, a couple in short but sincere encounters in the dorm or on campus - and one when he came out to me himself in a tear-filled late night meeting.
But even with the apologies - heartfelt as they were - I've never been able to completely leave that horrible incident behind. It is the kind of traumatic event that rears its ugly head up from time to time unexpectedly - and even with time (and therapy!) it can still be raw and painful. In the past few days, those memories have certainly be getting dredged up in a particularly powerful way.
And while I haven't remained in contact with the men who assaulted me, over the years a number of chance meetings and communications have confirmed that they still remember it equally vividly, and that they feel shame and guilt to their cores.
One of them found me on-line a few years back and wrote me a heart-wrenching letter recounting the story of his own son being the victim of anti-gay bullying in high school and telling me how he sometimes felt that it had happened to punish his son for what he had done to me. I've assured him that was, obviously, not the case and that the best way to deal with the legacy of that one night so many years ago was to work to make the world safe for his son and for all other kids, queer or straight. Another has made it to a position of some political prominence and wrote me to tell me he thought of me when his legislative body voted on anti-bullying legislation.
Despite the scars that it left, I've gone on in my own life to live as a proud and unintimidated gay man, supported by a wonderful community of both gay and straight friends and colleagues, making an impact on the world around me through activism and speaking out without fear.
We've come a long long way as a society since 1976, and even further since Mitt's "prank" in 1965. Without making excuses, I can look back at the way those generations were acculturated and understand how such cruel violence could have, somehow, seemed like the norm at the time.
But while I can understand the way the all-male homophobic environment of the time may have helped shape the events of Mitt Romney's bullying in 1965, I cannot for even one second believe that Mitt Romney honestly has no memory of the violence he inflicted on John Lauber. I say that based not simply because of how vividly I remember my attack, but also how profoundly my assailants were affected by it.
It gives me great comfort that my assailants faced up to their acts and have attempted to deal with it. The fact that it is only now, when Romney is facing a media fire storm, that he offers up a "I'm sorry if anyone was offended" non-apology, provides me all I need to know about his character.