Betsy DeVos, a Michigan-based philanthropist and President-elect Trump’s pick for education secretary, has a long record of supporting anti-LGBTQ causes. As head of the federal Department of Education, she would have the power to promote those causes in schools across the country by weakening anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ students.
DeVos and her husband, Richard DeVos, supported efforts to amend the Michigan constitution to ban same-sex marriage in 2004. They donated $200,000 to the campaign. Voters approved of the amendment.
The influence of the DeVos family reaches far beyond Michigan, however. The family has also contributed hundreds of thousands to Focus on the Family, a group that supports conversion therapy, Politico reported. The Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation donated $400,000 to the group. Conversion therapy is exactly what it sounds like: patients are taught that they can change their sexual attraction through “counseling,” and that LGBTQ people are simply bored and seeking excitement, or are trying to fulfill emotional needs through sexual validation.
As education secretary, DeVos would preside over the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights, which has been engaged in efforts to fight classroom anti-LGBTQ discrimination.
The Education Department recently released guidance on discrimination against transgender students — which many states are fighting in court — asserting that trans students should be able to use the bathroom and locker room of their gender.
The Office of Civil Rights released a letter in 2010 presenting in which it said anti-LGBTQ harassment of a gay student constituted a form of sex discrimination under Title IX. The letter said schools have an obligation to end such harassment by taking steps such as educating students on tolerance and aggressively monitoring places where such incidents occur.
The office has also taken steps to communicate to schools how they should interpret the the Equal Access Act, which allows non-curricular groups to have to have the same access to school facilities. Some school boards have tried to eliminate all non-curricular student groups in an effort to get rid of Gay Straight Student Alliances, or GSAs. GSAs exist in part to help students create a more welcoming school environment for LGBTQ students. The department warned against targeting GSAs through eliminating all non-curricular clubs, or discriminating against a group on the basis that allowing access to facilities would constitute an endorsement of the group.
All of these policies could be rescinded under DeVos. This doesn’t necessarily mean that all schools would choose to step back from policies supporting LGBTQ students, but those schools that are already failing to protect LGBTQ students from harassment and discrimination would not face any federal pressure to improve.
DeVos has not clarified her views on LGBTQ rights in the wake of Trump’s decision to tap her for education secretary. LGBTQ advocacy groups have voiced their concerns.
Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, told Politico in a statement, “True educational equity requires schools that serve the most at-risk students, including students of color; students with disabilities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and/or questioning students; and English-language learners … Vouchers and tuition tax credits do not advance this cause. As we have seen over the past eight years, federal civil rights oversight of education is essential to ensure that all students in this country have real access to opportunity.”
Other members of the DeVos family have also supported anti-LGBTQ causes. DeVos’ mother’ Elsa Prince Broekhuizen, gave money to the campaign for California’s Proposition 8 and the 2004 campaign against marriage equality in Michigan. Her mother’s first husband was also the late Edgar Prince, a co-founder of the Family Research Council, whose vice president, Rob Schwarzwalder, called gay people “predatory,” The Advocate reported.
The Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation, which “examines the role that religion, family, and community plan in society and public policy,” employs people who write that schools should not prevent discrimination against trans students, and suggests that children’s safety is at risk if trans people occupy the bathroom of their gender.