President-elect Donald Trump’s latest cabinet pick, Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education, doesn’t bode well for LGBTQ students across the country: She’s been known to cozy up to a number of “family values” groups, some of whom have called for “conversion therapy” for gay people.
DeVos currently serves as chairwoman for an advocacy group called the American Federation for Children, a booster of “school choice” legislation, which pushes for vouchers to subsidize the cost of sending kids to private schools. She has also been a vocal proponent of for-profit charter schools, and was herself instrumental in establishing Michigan’s charter school system.
Teachers’ unions across the country swiftly condemned her nomination: “In nominating DeVos, Trump makes it loud and clear that his education policy will focus on privatizing, defunding and destroying public education in America,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten wrote.
Her husband, Richard “Dick” DeVos, is the son of Richard DeVos, a co-founder of Amway, the Michigan-based multi-level marketing empire that has long entangled itself with the Republican political machine (and has been accused on more than one occasion of being a pyramid scheme, which the company has denied in ensuing court cases).
Concerns from multiple LGBTQ rights groups—including the National Center for Transgender Equality and the Human Rights Campaign—stem from her family’s close ties with a host of major anti-LGBTQ rights initiatives and groups, including donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian group that fought for anti-same sex marriage legislation in several states.
Amway’s current president, Douglas DeVos, is Betsy’s brother-in-law and has contributed to the National Organization for Marriage, according to a report published by Mother Jones as part of their dark money reporting.
Betsy and Dick DeVos, as well as other members of the extended DeVos family, have contributed money to anti-same sex marriage groups that include the Heritage Foundation and the Acton Institute. The couple have also contributed to conservative groups espousing “traditional values,” like the Federalist Society, and “Judeo-Christian values,” like the Council for National Policy, according to Mother Jones.
Perhaps the most troubling group DeVos supports is Focus on the Family, which champions so-called gay “conversion therapy,” a practice discredited by medical professionals as misleading and harmful, and with no medical basis. The group ran an “ex-gay” ministry called Love Won Out from 1998 until 2009, when that program merged with another “conversion therapy” program, Exodus International. The American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and several other professional groups that set medical standards oppose any use of “conversion therapy.” Five states, plus D.C., have outlawed “conversion therapy” for minors, citing the harm it can cause to young LGBTQ people.
Civil rights and LGBTQ rights groups are also concerned that a Department of Education headed by DeVos would likely backtrack on letters and guidances that the department has issued in recent years taking a strong position against transphobic and homophobic policies in school districts nationally.
Those guidances aren’t legally enforceable, but school districts with contradictory policies faced the threat of losing federal funds and legal action from LGBTQ students, who would have the favorable department guidance on their side in a court battle. Thirteen states filed briefs in federal court in July asking a judge to block any action the Obama administration could take as a result of state departments of education opposing the guidances; another 10 states filed a case against the administration shortly thereafter.
Trump himself has said that he thinks the rights of transgender students should be decided on at a state level, without federal protections. Both Trump’s transition team and DeVos’ office did not immediately return requests for comment.
DeVos’ nomination shouldn’t come as too much of surprise given that the vice president-elect is Mike Pence, who has ushered in some of the most homophobic legislation in the nation as Indiana governor.
Politico points out that one of DeVos’ top advisors, Greg McNeilly, is gay, and that perhaps that could indicate her personal politics are not as anti-LGBTQ as her other affiliations and her family’s record up to this point would suggest. But even if that’s the case, current federal support for the rights of LGBTQ students seem unlikely to last for long in a Trump-Pence White House.