Civil rights groups say they’re “deeply concerned” that the extension of civil rights protections to gay and transgender students by President Barack Obama’s Education Department will be dismantled by Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s pick to lead the department.
They note the DeVos family has a long history of supporting anti-gay causes — including donating hundreds of thousands to groups that push “conversion therapy” — raising questions about how, if at all, she would address discrimination against gay and transgender students.
“The DeVos family has a long, well-documented history of funding organizations dedicated to undermining and restricting the rights of LGBTQ people,” said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a group that advocates for LGBT rights.
However, a top official from Equality Michigan, a gay rights group from DeVos’ home state, believes her personal views aren’t accurately reflected by her family’s past donations and expresses hope she will protect LGBT kids — while also noting plans to watch her actions.
DeVos didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story. In an online posting Wednesday, she said she’s committed to transforming the education system, but that “out of respect for the United States Senate, it is most appropriate for me to defer expounding on specifics until they begin their confirmation process.”
Trump, meanwhile, has expressed tolerant views on gay rights. He has said that transgender people should be able to use whatever bathroom they want. He’s also said he’s “fine with” same-sex marriage.
The Office for Civil Rights in Obama’s Education Department has pursued a number of policies heralded by civil rights and gay advocacy groups: It urged schools to extend anti-bullying policies to cover LGBT students. Using “Dear Colleague” letters, it has called on schools to allow LGBT student groups on campuses. Most recently, it cited Title IX, a federal law that prohibits discrimination based on sex, to protect the right of transgender students to use the bathrooms and locker rooms of their choice.
“That guidance has been a life-saver for students across the country,” said James Esseks, director of the ACLU’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender and HIV Project. “It would be a tragedy if that guidance were rescinded.”
That could happen with the stroke of DeVos’ pen. The policy could also be struck down by the courts since nearly half of the states have sued the Obama administration over the issue.
The Supreme Court said last month that it would take up the case of a Virginia transgender student seeking to use the boy’s bathroom at his high school. But a DeVos Education Department could also rescind the Obama administration’s guidelines on transgender students, prompting the justices to send the case back to a lower court for reconsideration.
Advocates point to one DeVos relationship that they say gives them hope for how she may approach LGBT issues: Greg McNeilly, a political adviser to DeVos and the chief operating officer of the DeVos family’s company Windquest Group, is gay and was one of the first to marry his same-sex partner in Michigan after the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. McNeilly declined to comment for this story.
Stephanie White, executive director of Equality Michigan, said she believes that with McNeilly as an influence, DeVos’ views on LGBT issues have evolved. She noted that DeVos doesn’t speak out against gay rights, and even called on Dave Agema, a Michigan Republican National Committee member, to step down from the RNC in 2014 after making comments highly critical of gays.
“She’s shown a capacity to grow in her understanding of LGBT issues,” White said.
White said she hoped DeVos would continue policies that the Obama administration set in motion, particularly for transgender students.
“She doesn’t have to break new ground, just follow the principle that children deserve a quality education,” White said. “And I know that’s something that Betsy herself has … stated she believes in.”
Still, the DeVos family has a long history of supporting groups that espouse anti-gay rights views.
DeVos and her husband have given hundreds of thousands to Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian group whose founder called the battle against LGBT rights a “second civil war,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The group has also pushed so-called “conversion therapy” — discredited practices aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation — according to the Human Rights Campaign.
DeVos’ ties to a group that pushes “conversion therapy” is “most alarming,” and DeVos needs to clarify her stance on the practice, Griffin said.
“If Betsy DeVos is to serve as our nation’s Secretary of Education, she must clarify whether she shares her family’s support for this abusive practice, or if she’ll pledge to work to ban it,” he said.
DeVos’ late father, Edgar Prince, and her husband’s family, were major donors to the Family Research Council, another conservative Christian lobbying organization. The group at one point advocated on their website for followers not to shop at Wal-Mart because of its support for LGBT employees. DeVos’ family members also donated thousands of dollars to campaigns opposing efforts to legalize gay marriage in states like Florida, Michigan and California.
That record has left advocacy groups wary of what may be to come under DeVos.
Eliza Byard, executive director of GLSEN, a group that advocates for LGBT rights in education, said her concerns extend beyond what DeVos might do with the Office for Civil Rights. She contends that DeVos’ support for measures such as school vouchers undercut civil rights enforcement and drain public funds from public schools.
“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 (LGBTQ) students and English-language learners,” Byard said.
Teach For America on Wednesday issued a statement urging the next Education secretary to “uphold values,” including creating safe learning environments for LGBT students.
“There are school districts all across the country that are being respectful of transgender students and their identities … there’s no reason to think that any of that would change on the ground,” said Esseks of the ACLU. “The question is, what is the message that [the] federal government is sending to school districts that have questions?”
White said she’s “cautiously optimistic” that DeVos won’t do anything that “will be purposely hurtful for LGBT issues.”
“We’ll be watching,” she added.