Betsy DeVos said she does not support conversion therapy. But does that make her an LGBT ally?
The president-elect's pick for secretary of Education, when asked during her confirmation hearings by Sen. Al Franken, claimed she never supported the discredited practice of trying to change a person's sexual orientation or gender identity.
"Sen. Franken, I’ve never believed in that," DeVos said. "First of all, let me say I fully embrace equality and I believe in the innate value of every single human being and that all students, no matter their age, should be able to attend a school and feel safe and be free of discrimination. So let’s start there, and let me just say that your characterization of our contributions I don’t think accurately reflects those of my family. I would hope you wouldn’t include other family members beyond my core family."
However, the public record does not reflect DeVos's statement. In an op-ed for The Advocate, titled "Betsy DeVos Is a Threat to America's Children," the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, noted this core family's "long record of opposing LGBT equality."
"Foundations run by her parents and her husband's parents have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Focus on the Family, a group that’s promoted damaging gay 'conversion therapy' and called homosexuality 'preventable and treatable,'" Weingarten noted.
"A foundation run by her husband's brother and sister-in-law donated $500,000 to the antigay National Organization for Marriage, and a foundation run by DeVos and her husband has donated more than $100,000 to the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy. DeVos's late father, Edgar Prince, helped found the Family Research Council; her mother, Elsa Prince Broekhuizen, sits on the boards of the FRC and the Acton Institute, which sponsored a conference held by an antigay hate group."
From 2001 to 2013, DeVos was listed on tax forms as vice president of the Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation, which was founded by her mother and has donated to such anti-LGBT groups as the FRC and Focus on the Family, The Washington Post reports. In the hearing, DeVos said the listing was a "clerical error" and that she has never made decisions for her mother. Just last week the foundation filed paperwork with the state of Michigan to have DeVos's name removed.
Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, who pressed DeVos on the issue during the hearing, wasn't buying the nominee's explanation. “It is hard to believe that Mrs. DeVos could be listed as vice president of the Prince Foundation for 13 years and yet have no involvement with, or knowledge of, the millions of dollars in donations made to anti-LGBTQ groups that promote intolerance,” Hassan said in an email to the Post Wednesday. “For Mrs. DeVos to try to explain away these donations by claiming that her title was simply a ‘clerical error’ is concerning, to say the least.”
Despite this record, DeVos has LGBT supporters. The Log Cabin Republicans submitted a letter in her defense to the the chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions, which was entered Tuesday into the public record. Penned by the conservative LGBT group's president, Gregory T. Angelo, the letter claimed DeVos "has been maligned in the media as an 'anti-gay' activist — allegations directly stemming from her personal views of marriage (which are now immaterial in the aftermath of the Supreme Court's 2015 Obergefell ruling), and contributions from her family foundation (to which she was not a direct party)."
As proof that DeVos is no antigay "firebreather," the Log Cabin Republicans pointed to her onetime defense of a gay senior adviser, Greg McNeilly, as well as her call in 2013 for a member of the Republican National Committee, Dave Agema, to resign over homophobic remarks.
"They reflect the West Michigan experience I've had, which has been people going out of their way to show affirmation," McNeilly said in December of DeVos and her husband, who McNeilly claimed supported his marriage and his LGBT activism.
However, many LGBT organizations are still raising red flags over DeVos, despite these character assessments and her public rejection of conversion therapy. Eliza Byard, the head of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, an advocacy group for queer students, expressed grave concerns over what DeVos did not say, in a statement following the Tuesday hearing.
"While we are relieved to hear DeVos rejecting the dangerous and thoroughly discredited practice of conversion therapy her family has previously supported, it was chilling to hear DeVos dodge questions about whether she would keep essential protections for transgender students, and basically refer all other civil rights protections for students with disabilities, students of color, and religious minority students 'back to the states,'" Byard said.
“If this is all the hearing we’re going to get, then we must oppose," she added, a reference to the limited time members of Congress were permitted to question DeVos. "Conversion therapy is not the only issue of concern for LGBTQ youth. LGBTQ youth come from many communities and have many identities — identities that U.S. civil rights law is designed to protect."
David Stacy, government affairs director of the Human Rights Campaign, echoed Byard's concerns about the questions unasked and unanswered.
"It’s good that Betsy DeVos rejects the dangerous practice of conversion therapy and is distancing herself from extremist organizations that practice it. But will she protect LGBTQ young people and commit to keeping crucial protections in place for transgender students? That is a key, critical question and should be an easy answer," he stated.
"Does she reject Focus on the Family’s call for the Department of Education to rescind guidance ensuring the safety of transgender students? Will she reject attempts by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty to have taxpayers foot the bill for discrimination against LGBTQ students and families? We still don’t know those answers and we must. The next Secretary of Education deserves a thorough vetting and this drive-by hearing is inadequate and inexcusable."
In addition to a muddy record on LGBT issues, Betsy DeVos has historically not been a friend of public education. An advocate of school choice, she believes government bodies should provide vouchers to parents who want to send their children to private schools but can’t afford them.
DeVos, a billionaire who has donated millions to the Republican Party, would bring no public school experience to the position, either as a teacher or an administrator. Her views on firearms have also raised eyebrows. During her confirmation hearing, DeVos made headlines for saying guns might be needed in some schools "to protect from potential grizzlies," as one potential scenario.