Betsy DeVos Won't Protect LGBT Students, So We Have To

Enough waiting for the power brokers to get their act together.
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos testifies before the Senate Appropriations Committee on June 6th, 2017. She is wearing a g
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos testifies before the Senate Appropriations Committee on June 6th, 2017. She is wearing a grey blazer and is leaning into her microphone.

Alongside the breaking news that water is wet, the Earth is round and President Trump is a racist, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee made headlines today when she refused to say that her department would protect LGBT students or other protected minority classes, calling the issue “unsettled law.” Apparently, this stance came as a shock (or at least a subject for outrage) in some progressive corners of the internet, with people voicing emotions ranging from disappointment to disbelief that the Secretary was unwilling to back Title IX.

I’m honestly baffled that anyone is caught off guard by this move. It never ceases to amaze me how many news outlets and commentators are consistently and dramatically stunned every time DeVos and her partners in the Trump administration do exactly what they said they would. Nothing about DeVos’ inexperience, ideological commitments, or general disregard for minority populations was exactly a secret. You could read the woman’s Wikipedia biography and know that she was a grossly unqualified, unsympathetic individual. When she showed us who she was, to paraphrase Maya Angelou, I believed her. And it’s time everyone else started believing her too so we can stop being fake outraged and do something about it.

Mind you, DeVos’ policy stances aren’t exactly an anomaly. LGBT students haven’t been protected under Title IX all that long - only a few years ago the Department issued a clarification letter incorporating protections for our community into existing legal frameworks. If history is any indication, the legal push and pull in terms of incorporating and accepting these policies will be long and drawn out. Any well intentioned federal policy designed to protect the rights of students to a fair and equal education - school desegregation, anti-sexual violence policies - have all been subject to decades of legal battles that still rage on to this day. DeVos’ stance isn’t the death knell for these policies, just like Arne Duncan’s and John King Jr.’s support for them didn’t guarantee their sustained existence.

Another key component of this issue is the disconnect and lack of communication between interest groups and advocacy organizations whose work should be dovetailing on these issues. The Human Rights Campaign has focused its attention mostly on K-12 schools, fighting for protections for LGBT students in those environments, while anti-rape organizations like Know Your IX and End Rape on Campus have primarily concentrated solely on colleges and universities, the latter often sticking solely to Title IX’s isolated role in adjudicating sexual violations.

As Attorney General Sessions and Secretary DeVos have heightened their attack on these policies, the gap between these two groups of organizations has increased. The Human Rights Campaign has moved increasingly towards a respectability politics of elite, apolitical gay and bisexual celebrities and politicians and away from policies designed to increase welfare, end homelessness, or treat the HIV epidemic, most profoundly seen in minority communities. Anti-rape organizations have entrenched their work more deeply in the college sphere, and have often spent more of their time trying to distance themselves from any and all forms of punishment for perpetrators - arguing that issuing punishment for the minuscule number of perpetrators who are convicted of their crimes threatens to tip the criminal justice system further in the direction of racially-motivated mandatory minimum sentencing, like the ones created exclusively for low level drug offenses and not for rape - rather than addressing the root issues of the epidemic (see here and here).

The result is two separate constituencies, both of which purport to represent myself and many others, diverging on solutions and rectifications rather than converging. As DeVos and her supporters begin to clamp down with an iron fist on specific, targeted populations, the groups that are supposed to be standing up to them are instead distracted, pooling resources and time into figuring out the opposition’s strategy - not realizing it’s already been spelled out in black and white.

It’s clear that Betsy DeVos is not going to stand up for LGBT students, or any others who are protected by Title IX. But right now, it’s not clear that the groups who have literally made it their business to do so are going to either, at least not quickly enough to make much of a difference. In some sense, DeVos is right - it’s not the Department of Education’s job to do the right thing. It’s our job. Enough waiting for the power brokers to get their act together. We need to get on the phone, get on our emails, and start taking the solution into our own hands.