As billionaire philanthropist Betsy DeVos heads into her confirmation hearings to run the Department of Education, most questions will likely be about her support for school vouchers, charter schools, and other alternatives to the public school system.
But there is an urgent need to ask DeVos another set of questions: What would she do to protect the most vulnerable students, particularly LGBT students, from harassment and violence? Would her department make matters even worse for them?
Same-sex marriage may grab the headlines, but education policy at all levels of government often has more of an effect on the daily lives of LGBT people, because despite all the progress in recent years, queer kids are still being bullied, and still attempting suicide at four times the rate of straight kids.
DeVos’s stance on LGBT rights is not known—she has declined to comment ahead of the confirmation hearings—but there are, to put it mildly, reasons for concern.
The DeVos family has been the primary funder of some of the most anti-LGBT organizations in the country, to the tune of more than $200 million. Her father-in-law, Richard DeVos, was one of the first mega-funders of the Christian right in the 1970s, and his foundation is now a fixture at The Gathering, the Woodstock of Christian right funders, and a major funder of Focus on the Family. The DeVos Center for Religion and Society at the Heritage Foundation has promoted a quasi-theocratic worldview. And Betsy DeVos’s father, Edgar Prince, was a founder of the Family Research Council.
On the other hand, that’s her family—not her. The Dick and Betsy DeVos foundation itself has largely focused on school vouchers and school choice, though they have also supported the Acton Institute, a hard-right “religious liberty” organization that has taken many anti-LGBT stances. And one of her political advisers, Greg McNeilly, is openly gay.
As a result, says Nathan Smith, director of Public Policy at GLSEN, a leading backer of anti-bullying and other protections for LGBT students, “we’re having to read the tea leaves in terms of what DeVos is going to do on LGBT issues.”
We shouldn’t have to. Senators should ask DeVos four specific questions about LGBT people and the Department of Education.
First: Will you maintain the mission of the Office of Civil Rights, or will you cut staff, appoint people hostile to its mission, and set priorities that abandon LGBTs and other vulnerable populations?
Within the Department of Education, the Office of Civil Rights, or OCR, is, in Smith’s words, “the critical office within the department to ensure that civil-rights protections are enforced and equitable across student population.” OCR interprets federal laws against race, gender, and other forms of discrimination; most recently, it was heavily attacked by conservatives for releasing a “guidance letter” stating that anti-transgender discrimination was a form of sex discrimination, prohibited under Title IX.
While the OCR letter was about all forms of discrimination and how trans people are treated throughout the educational system, it, like everything in transgender politics, became all about bathrooms. And even though it expressly permitted the solution already implemented by hundreds of schools—single-stall, non-gendered restrooms—it became a flashpoint of hysterical conservative exploitation. Boys in the girls’ room! Thanks, Obama!
The guidance letter is almost certainly to be rescinded, probably immediately. But the larger question is what will happen to OCR itself. While Smith doubted that the office would be eliminated entirely (“it’s woven into existing law”)—he acknowledged that it is “certainly within the authority of the administration to appoint political appointees not friendly to the office.”
Betsy DeVos should be asked about this directly. However she answers, all senators who vote for her can then be held accountable.
2. Anti-LGBT Directives
Second: What are your views on sexual orientation and gender identity, and how would your department change existing policies regarding them?
The Education Department can do far more than rescind pro-LGBT policies, after all. It can implement anti-LGBT ones.
For example, it would be relatively easy for the department to declare homosexuality to be a “lifestyle choice” and being transgender a “mental illness,” then set federal policies that “discourage” both. These could include banning any schools with gay-straight alliances from receiving federal funds or grant programs to promote so-called conversion therapy (DeVos family foundations have donated heavily to groups promoting this quackery).
Other easy changes would be to approve that favors the “natural family”—a conservative neologism referring to a childbearing marriage between dominant man and a submissive woman—as the only appropriate family configuration. Federal programs that now include diversity training could be reoriented, and even sports teams could go back to excluding LGBT students from participation.
Smith noted that “if they issued that kind of guidance, there’d be huge pushback not just from LGBT and civil-rights groups but also organizations like the [American Psychlogical Association]. The APA discusses what trans issues are and how best to work with trans people. For the federal government to issue guidance in direct opposition to best practices would get a lot of attention.”
Of course, that hasn’t stopped numerous states from issuing other directives in direct contradiction to best practices, such as Texas’s now-voided abortion regulations. And it would hardly be the only time the Trump administration defied widely agreed-upon norms.
Third: Are demonstrations of anti-gay beliefs a form of religious liberty? Do you agree with other members of your family that regulations against bullying are forms of political correctness that oppress Christians?
Believe it or not, bullies have their own lobbyists in Washington: Christian right groups that argue bullying is a form of religious liberty. A bully wearing a “God Hates Fags” T-shirt or shoving Bible pamphlets in gay students’ faces is, they say, the free exercise of religion that our Founding Fathers sought to protect. The real victims, they say, are the Christian students who are unable to practice their religion because of the empire of political correctness.
“We’ve seen efforts at the state level to ‘protect students’ expression of religious beliefs’ which allow some students to bully other students,” said Smith. Indeed, a pro-bullying exemption passed the Michigan Senate in 2012, with DeVos family money behind it.
Similar efforts have failed on the federal level, and the Obama administration (and OCR in particular) has adopted policies to combat bullying. But that is easy to change. Recast anti-bullying as “pro-gay political correctness” and recast bullying as “religious liberty,” and a DeVos Education Department could wipe out existing anti-bullying protections—which are administrative, not legislative—and put into place pro-bully protections. They won’t call them that, of course.
Smith said that here, there is a “glimmer of hope” because bullying has “grown beyond being an LGBT issue… This is becoming more of a bipartisan issue than it was back in 2010 or 2011.”
4. School Vouchers
Finally: If voucher programs are instituted, how will the government protect vulnerable kids in the schools that taxpayers are subsidizing?
DeVos’s signature issue is the promotion of vouchers that funnel taxpayer money to private schools if parents prefer them to public ones. Whatever the arguments, pro and con, regarding school vouchers, it is clear that they hurt LGBT people. “There is not an existing voucher program in the country,” Smith said, “that requires schools that receive funds to comply with the civil-rights protections that apply to public schools.”
As a result, “public money could go to private schools that don’t uphold students’ rights, or to religious schools that could be unfriendly or even psychologically dangerous to those students.”
In a way, this is part of the problem with “school choice” itself. On the one hand, the federal government should not be telling some religious school how to teach its own religion and govern its student body. On the other hand, as soon as federal dollars start flowing to that school—at the expense of public schools, no less—the government is paying for anti-gay, anti-women, or anti-whomever doctrine to be taught to young people; for guidance counselors who harm them; and for school environments hostile to them.
There’s no way around it—except, of course, to take the government out of the private-school funding business altogether, which was the point of the First Amendment’s guarantees in the first place: to keep government away from religion. And it is what voucher programs, notwithstanding their constitutionality, would erode. LGBT people are one community affected by them.
A handful of LGBT Trump-supporters—nearly all of them white, wealthy gay men—have claimed that because same-sex marriage is safe and Trump has gay friends, that LGBTs and allies should relax and stop whining. “I think Trump is very good on gay rights,” said Peter Thiel in an interview with The New York Times. “I don’t think he will reverse anything.”
Such complaints reveal a profound ignorance of how the government actually works. In precisely the parts of America that gave Trump his victory, young LGBTs are as vulnerable as ever—perhaps even more so, due to increased visibility—and it is in policies like the Education Department’s, much more than same-sex marriage, where the rubber hits the road.
If Betsy DeVos sides with her virulently anti-LGBT family members (and fellow cabinet members), she has the capacity to do great harm to children in the name of promoting conservative morality. We need to know where she stands.