USA Education First Look

Could Betsy DeVos be an ally for transgender students? It's complicated.

The new education secretary has a history of quietly supporting LGBT rights, and reportedly objected to the Trump administration's decision to revoke the previous administration's guidance for schools on what bathrooms transgender students should be allowed to use.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Oxon Hill, Md., on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017.
Susan Walsh/AP
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In the “bathroom bill” debate, LGBT students may have found an unlikely ally in the Trump administration: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

The newly minted secretary of Education reportedly balked at President Trump's efforts to reverse an Obama-administration directive that folded gender identity under Title IX protections. Ms. DeVos eventually fell in line with the rest of the administration on the issue, but she later took care to emphasize her dedication to preventing discrimination and bullying against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students, in an echo of her earlier work toward promotion of LGBT rights.

Last year, then-President Barack Obama issued guidelines that said Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 – which prohibits discrimination in any educational program – be applied to gender identity, as well as gender. Advocates saw this move as a step forward for LGBT rights, ensuring transgender students that they may use the bathroom of their choosing.

On Wednesday evening, Mr. Trump rescinded Mr. Obama’s directive to protect transgender students and subsequently issued his own guidelines for Title IX interpretation.

But in a statement Wednesday, DeVos, a Republican fundraiser from Michigan who barely made it through Senate confirmation, was vocal about the need to protect LGBT students from discrimination, violence, and bullying.

“I have dedicated my career to advocating for and fighting on behalf of students, and as Secretary of Education, I consider protecting all students, including LGBTQ students, not only a key priority for the Department, but for every school in America,” DeVos wrote in a statement Wednesday. However, the controversy surrounding bathroom rights in schools “is an issue best solved at the state and local level,” she added. 

According to an article published Wednesday by The New York Times, the bathroom bill debate has caused a rift between DeVos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Three Republicans with knowledge of the internal discussions told the Times that Mr. Sessions wanted to quickly repeal the Title IX interpretation because of upcoming court cases that could have eventually given former Obama’s guidelines permanent protection.

DeVos reportedly refused to sign off on Sessions’ directive, a necessary step for rescission, which caused Sessions to go directly to Trump and ask for his support. Trump apparently sided with Sessions and convinced DeVos to fall in line. 

At a gathering of conservatives outside Washington on Thursday, DeVos again criticized Obama’s guidance for school bathrooms and transgender students on legislative – rather than substantive – grounds. 

“This issue was a very huge example of the Obama administration’s overreach,” said DeVos, according to Reuters. “To suggest a one-size-fits-all federal government approach, top-down approach, to issues that are best dealt with and solved at a personal level and a local level.”

DeVos's previous record, however, suggest that she may necessarily oppose the inclusive sentiment suggested in Obama's directive.

When The New York Times interviewed LGBT friends and former colleagues of DeVos prior to her confirmation, many spoke of her as accepting and supportive. 

Greg McNeilly, a fellow Republican operative in Michigan, said DeVos was the first person to text congratulations after his marriage to his husband in 2014, and she offered a testament of support when the couple filed adoption paperwork in 2015. 

And during her time as chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party, she defended a transgender women who wanted to use the female bathroom at a call center, recalled Mr. McNeilly and his colleague Eric Doster.

As The New York Times wrote in January, DeVos's support for LGBT rights is somewhat at odds with her public image as a supporter of conservative causes:

The incomplete picture of Ms. DeVos, 59, exists in part because she has never publicly sought to correct it. Doing so, friends and associates said in interviews, would have put her in the awkward position of clashing with the elder members of her and her husband’s families, something she was loath to do.

But over the past month, associates have come forward to share stories that they say they hope offer a fuller and more nuanced portrait of her character and beliefs.

LGBT-rights advocates are protesting Trump’s decision, but it is unlikely to have an immediate effect. Individual schools are still free to give transgender students bathroom discretion, and Obama’s guidelines had been essentially powerless since August when a federal judge in Texas issued a nationwide injunction against the guidelines, barring their enforcement. 

This report includes material from Reuters. 

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