Eric Fehrnstrom, a top aide and political strategist to presumptive Republican presidential candidate former Gov. Mitt Romney (MA), made headlines earlier this year with a gaffe comparing Romney in the primary fight to an “Etch a Sketch” that you can flip over and shake and start over with as a blank slate in the general election. Before he was an adviser to Romney, Fehrnstrom was a political columnist for the Boston Herald. According to a profile in GQ, in 1992, he outed recently-elected Massachusetts Rep. Althea Garrison (R) as a transgender woman, effectively ending her political career.
To Mara Keisling, director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, the malicious outing and the presence of Fehrnstrom on Romney’s staff is simply unacceptable.
“Privacy for transgender people is a matter of survival, physical and economic survival,” Keisling told Raw Story, “Once you out a trans person, you can’t just ‘Etch a Sketch’ it away.”
Fehrnstrom made his name in Boston as a “blue-collar conservative” columnist whose hard-hitting style got him moved from sports reporting to the political beat at the Rupert Murdoch-owned Herald, which was the splashy, tabloid-style counterpart to the more staid Boston Globe. He and his fellow reporter Howie Carr brought what GQ called a “nasty and resentful” tone to the paper’s political reportage, making the Herald a kind of perfect weapon against the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee, gormless former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis.
It was for a local official, however, that Fehrnstrom reserved one of his nastiest political hits. Althea Garrison was a Boston politician and activist who was elected as a Republican to the Massachusetts state House in 1992. Two days after her election victory, Fehrnstrom published an article in the Herald announcing that Garrison had been born male.
“I can remember his glee when he found the birth certificate,” said a former Herald reporter named Robert Connolly.
Garrison’s career in politics was over. Speculation had previously gone around the community about Garrison’s gender status, but after Fehrnstrom’s story, it became her defining characteristic to the media. In every mention of her name in the press, her performance as a House member was overshadowed by her gender identity. Howie Carr, who is now a conservative talk show host, wrote in the Herald not long after the outing, “I’ve always liked Althea. She has a big heart. Not to mention big feet. And very, very big hands.”
The outing of Althea Garrison raises serious questions about the culture of the Romney campaign, where Fehrnstrom operates as a privileged member of the command team and as Romney’s longest-serving, most-trusted political strategist. It has been said that if Karl Rove was “Bush’s brain,” then Fehrnstrom is “Romney’s balls.”
Mara Keisling told Raw Story that Ferhnstrom’s campaign against Garrison is “just more bullying. It’s an invasion of privacy. We’ve had five or six hate murders of trans people across the U.S. just in the last six weeks.” She said that these kinds of tactics represent the worst form of transphobia, describing it as “putting people at risk just because you get your jollies from it.”
Also, in recent days, stories of violent, homophobic “pranks” during Romney’s prep school years have come to light, incidents which the candidate claims not to remember, but for which he issued a shallow, blanket apology, “There’s no question that I did some stupid things in high school and, obviously, if I hurt anyone by virtue of that I would be very sorry for it and apologize for it.”
To Fehrnstrom, on the other hand, the careers and reputations he savaged were of little consequence. In a 1999 article he wrote for Boston magazine, he said, “In my trade, politics was never personal. Hell, people were rarely people — they were ducks in a shooting gallery.”
Althea Garrison herself refuses to speak about the experience of being outed by Fernstrom. Raw Story reached her by telephone, but when the former state representative realized that the person on the phone was a reporter asking about Fehrnstrom, she ended the discussion.
“I don’t have time for this today,” she said, and hung up.