Opinion
Every Student Succeeds Act Commentary

Would Betsy DeVos Protect LGBTQ Students?

By Sarah Kate Ellis — February 03, 2017 4 min read

My problem with President Donald Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos for U.S. secretary of education wasn’t just that she never attended public school. Nor was it that she hasn’t held public office. It was the long-term harm she and the entire DeVos family have inflicted on LGBTQ students and families.

And it’s why many Americans, myself included, will be watching DeVos closely if she is confirmed—and will call out any policy decisions that could hurt students and their families.

As the mom of two young children with my wife, I simply cannot be silent. Despite assurances from DeVos’ advisers that she believes in equality, her own remarks and her relatives’ extremely close ties to anti-LGBTQ groups should alarm any educator—or American—who believes in fairness and equality.

In a 2006 speech to the Michigan Republican convention, Betsy DeVos called marriage equality part of the “destruction of our traditions.” Her in-laws and her mother’s foundation strongly backed an effort to ban marriage equality in Michigan.

Would Betsy DeVos Protect LGBTQ Students? The education secretary nominee's record on LGBTQ rights does not inspire confidence, writes GLAAD president Sarah Kate Ellis.

From 1999 to 2001, DeVos’ and her husband’s own foundation gave $275,000 to Focus on the Family, according to reporting from the magazine Mother Jones. Focus on the Family still touts conversion therapy in its web series “Leaving Homosexuality.” These practices have been directly linked to youth suicides and condemned by virtually all mental-health professionals.

Betsy DeVos’ father, Edgar Prince, was a major funder who helped launch a separate group, the Family Research Council. That group’s anti-LGBTQ agenda led the Southern Poverty Law Center to designate it a hate group. To this day, the Family Research Council’s website refers to LGBTQ people as “unnatural” and pledges to oppose acceptance and equality “in law, in the media, and in schools.”

This ugliness is deeply hurtful to me and families like mine—and to many educators and parents who advocate for young LGBTQ people. It’s also an insult to the American institution of education, built to serve everyone equally.

In the hearing, DeVos denied her own involvement in anti-LGBTQ activities by her mother’s foundation. But Sen. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat from New Hampshire, confronted DeVos in the hearing with tax documents that listed her as a longtime board member and the current vice president. DeVos blamed her appearance in those documents on a “clerical error.” The foundation’s website prominently congratulated DeVos on her Cabinet nomination, suggesting an ideological alignment.

DeVos' passion for school choice and vouchers should sound alarms for LGBTQ students, our families, and our supporters."

In what seemed like a promising twist, DeVos’ spokesperson told the news site BuzzFeed that DeVos supports marriage equality. He cited a “generational” difference of opinion with her older relatives. Another associate told The New York Times that her views on LGBTQ rights have “evolved.”

This response is also questionable. While public support for LGBTQ equality has indeed evolved, I know few families like DeVos’ that have focused so much time and money on hurting families like mine. Understanding and acceptance can take time, but actively trying to put loving couples and their children in danger is wrong.

It was wrong a generation ago, too.

If DeVos has changed her mind about marriage equality, I’m delighted to hear it. But her record speaks louder than her recent words, and I, like many others, am skeptical of whether she would support equality—and oppose bigotry—while in office.

How can DeVos be entrusted to protect our nation’s most vulnerable students when she decided to align herself with these organizations? With increased reports of school bullying in this divided political environment, would she support funding for anti-bullying programs under the new Every Student Succeeds Act?

And what about protections for LGBTQ students? Some conservative leaders, including Vice President Mike Pence, blasted the Education Department’s guidance for school districts on treating transgender students with basic fairness. Would DeVos rescind such guidance, put in place under President Barack Obama, and take other steps that show hostility for LGBTQ students and educators?

Such guidance isn’t just ideological; it’s affecting the lives of real students. North Carolina has banned transgender people, including students, from using the restroom that aligns with their identity, and a third school district in Virginia has now voted down anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ students or employees. Would DeVos take a stand on these students’ behalf? Or would she allow even more schools to treat LGBTQ students differently from their peers?

Does DeVos support so-called “religious liberty” bills that would legalize discrimination against LGBTQ people and students—like the one passed by the Michigan Senate in 2012 with financial support from her family, according to a recent article on the Daily Beast site?

Most of all, DeVos’ passion for school choice and vouchers should sound alarms for LGBTQ students, our families, and our supporters. The state and local requirements barring discrimination against LGBTQ people are in many cases less stringent (or nonexistent) for voucher programs. This means an expansion of school vouchers could endorse discrimination against educators—and students.

As Americans, we should ask how we should treat our children and families who need support the most. How can we protect our kids from discrimination and make sure they receive the education they need to thrive? These questions aren’t just about LGBTQ people. They’re about equality for everyone under the law.

In the past, DeVos has stood with those who hurt LGBTQ students and families. Millions of fair-minded Americans and education advocates are watching now to see if she’ll truly support equality for every student. I have my doubts, but I hope she surprises us all.

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