Betsy DeVos defended herself late Tuesday against assertions she has an anti-LGBT history by making a distinction between herself and family members who donated to anti-LGBT groups, but was bruised in response to other tough questions during her confirmation hearing.
DeVos, Trump’s pick to become the next education secretary, faced questions about her views on LGBT students and assertions she has an anti-LGBT past under questioning before the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee.
The nominee first came under questioning on LGBT issues from Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) who railed against her family donations to Focus on the Family, a group that advocates for social conservative approaches to family rearing and supports widely discredited “ex-gay” conversion therapy.
Pointing out the Focus on the Family website states “homosexual strugglers can and do change their sexual behavior and identity,” Franken said the DeVos family has given over $10 million to Focus on the Family and asked DeVos whether she still supports conversion therapy.
DeVos denied she ever supported the practice, saying, “Sen. Franken, I’ve never believed in that.”
“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,” DeVos said.
DeVos also warned against making inferences about her views on LGBT students based on donations her family made to anti-LGBT causes, saying the two shouldn’t be conflated.
“Your characterization of contributions, I don’t think, accurately reflects those of my family,” DeVos said. “I would hope that you wouldn’t include other family members beyond my core family.”
DeVos’ family has a history of opposing LGBT rights that may be an indication of how she would guide schools to treat LGBT students as head of the Education Department. It’s unclear what DeVos meant by her “core family,” but the record shows her spouse, Dick DeVos, was among those funding anti-LGBT causes.
According to a 2013 report in the Michigan LGBT publication PrideSource.com, Devos and her husband led the effort to put an anti-gay marriage amendment on the ballot in 2004 and contributed more than $200,000 to the campaign, which ultimately succeeded. Dick DeVos also contributed $100,000 in 2008 to pass Amendment 2 in Florida, an effort that banned same-sex marriage in the state.
A $20,000 campaign contribution from Dick Devos in 2004 to Citizens for the Protection of Marriage, the campaign that advocated for the anti-gay marriage amendment in Michigan, is in the public record, according to Buzzfeed.
In 2012, the revelation that the Douglas and Maria DeVos Foundation, financially supported by Betsy Devos’s brother-in-law and Amway president Doug DeVos, donated $500,000 to the National Organization for Marriage in 2009 prompted calls in the LGBT community for a boycott.
Betsy DeVos’s father, Edgar Prince, was a co-founder of the anti-LGBT Family Research Council, and her mother, Elsa Prince Broekhuizen, contributed $75,000 to pass the anti-gay marriage amendment in Michigan.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the only out lesbian in Congress, said she was “heartened” by the nominee’s response on conversion therapy, but the anti-LGBT groups to which her family donated not only back conversion therapy, but also oppose LGBT non-discrimination efforts, marriage equality and same-sex adoption.
“I assume that there are LGBT students and their parents watching tonight,” Baldwin said. “What would you say to them to assure them that you’re going to use your position as secretary to support LGBT students or students with LGBT parents?”
DeVos insisted the donations to these organizations from her family shouldn’t be confused with her and she would “embrace equality” for all students.
“I firmly believe in the intrinsic value of each individual and that every student should have the assurance of a safe and discrimination-free place to become educated, and I want to restate those principles, those values for me,” DeVos said.
On the anti-LGBT contributions, DeVos said, “You may be confusing some other family members in those contributions, and also looking at contributions from 18 or 20 years ago.”
“As a mom, I just can’t imagine having a child that would feel discriminated against for any reason, and I would want my child in a safe environment,” DeVos added.
Baldwin said if Devos feels her family donations to anti-LGBT groups have been conflated to include her, she should state that to the committee in writing.
Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) also questioned DeVos on the anti-LGBT donations, asking whether she was aware the Edgar & Elsa Prince Foundation — her mother’s foundation — donated more than $5 million to Focus on the Family.
DeVos never answered whether she was aware of the donation, but denied she was a member of the board and said “my mother makes the decisions for the foundation.”
One LGBT issue that didn’t explicitly come up during the hearing was whether DeVos would support rolling back Obama administration guidance prohibiting schools from discriminating against transgender students, such as by denying them access to the restroom consistent with their gender identity, or whether she thinks Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 bars anti-LGBT discrimination.
Points of greater contention during the hearing came up at other times. Under questioning from Franken on whether growth or proficiency is the best model for measuring students, DeVos appeared not to know the difference. Franken said “this is a subject that has been debated in the education community for years” and “it surprises” him she was unaware of the issue.
DeVos also raised eyebrows during the hearing in response to a question from Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), an advocate for gun safety legislation, who asked simply: “Do you think that guns have any place in or around schools?” DeVos replied: “I think that’s best left to locales and states to decide.”
Murphy, who represents the state where shootings at Sandy Hook elementary school left 20 children dead, seemed like he was trying to contain his rage over the response and repeated his question.
“I will refer back to Sen. Enzi and the school that he was talking about in Wapiti, Wyo.,” DeVos replied. “I think probably there I would imagine there’s probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.”
Asked whether she supports Trump’s plan for lifting gun-free zones at schools, DeVos said she would support the president-elect and added, “If the question is around gun violence and the results of that, please know that my heart bleeds and is broken for those families that have lost any individual to gun violence.”
Concluding his questioning, Murphy replied, “I look forward to working with you, but I also look forward to you coming to Connecticut and talking about the role of guns in schools.”
Under questioning from Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) on whether she thinks schools should comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Act, which requires them to serve the educational needs of eligible students with disabilities, DeVos said, “I think that is a matter that’s best left to the states.”
Another point of contention during the hearing between Democrats and Senate HELP Committee Chair Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) was the restriction to only a single round of questioning. Alexander insisted he’s following precedent for the Obama administration’s two nominees for education secretary, but Democrats said one round of questioning isn’t enough for Trump’s nominee and precedent is already violated because the U.S. Office of Government Ethics hadn’t yet cleared the nominee before the hearing.
An advocate of charter schools, DeVos faces steep opposition from union groups and Democrats who say she’s unfit for the role. In a letter coordinated by the Center for American Progress and made public on the day of the hearing, 38 progressive groups signaled they have “strong concerns” about the nominee.
David Stacy, government affairs director for the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement DeVos’s rejection of conversion therapy and efforts to distance herself from anti-LGBT groups is “good,” but answers to more questions are needed.
“But will she protect LGBTQ young people and commit to keeping crucial protections in place for transgender students?” Stacy said. “That is a key, critical question and should be an easy answer. 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.”
Eliza Byard, GLSEN’s executive director, said in a statement the DeVos hearing “raised a lot of additional deeply troubling issues of grave concern to all parents” and the organization will oppose the nominee if things remain as they stand.
“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.