Donald Trump has settled on billionaire Betsy DeVos as his choice for Secretary of Education, a woman with her own, long anti-LGBTQ record. I’ll get to her further down, but first it’s important, because it reflects on Trump’s first instincts, to focus on the man who appears to have been Trump’s initial choice for the job, and who says he passed on it: Loyal supporter and campaigner, Liberty University president Jerry Falwell, Jr. ― a man whose late father and mentor said the attacks of 9/11 were God’s wrath against the United States for its acceptance of homosexuality.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’d like to once again point to New York Times political reporter Maggie Haberman, who early this year wrote a story that set a false narrative for much of the media during the election campaign, headlined, “Donald Trump’s More Accepting Views on Gay Issues Set Him Apart in G.O.P.”
Though Trump consistently opposed marriage equality (since 2000) and suggested to evangelical leaders (and later confirmed) that he’d sign the anti-LGBTQ First Amendment Defense Act, Haberman’s weak evidence for her assertion included Trump sending his congratulations to Elton John upon his civil union in 2005 and Trump having “nuzzled” Rudy Giuliani while the former New York City mayor performed a drag skit at a political roast 16 years ago. (Trump only bolstered this media-created notion about him during the general election by publicly claiming without evidence that he was better for “LGBT people” than Hillary Clinton, while he more quietly made his promises to anti-LGBTQ forces.)
So, here we are now, during the transition of Trump’s presidency ― which includes anti-LGBTQ crusader Mike Pence as transition team chair and as a likely most powerful vice president ever ― and religious zealot and enemy of LGBTQ rights Jerry Falwell Jr. says that he was offered, and turned down, the job of Secretary of Education by Trump.
Now, I think I can safely say that neither Mitt Romney, nor John McCain, nor even George W. Bush, would have considered Jerry Falwell Jr. or any other hard-core religious leader ― not someone who is merely devoutly religious while at least minimally qualified for the job, but rather someone who is a leader in a religious movement and president of a university with the motto, “Training Champions for Christ since 1971” ― to establish policy for, and administer federal assistance to, America’s public education system. I think I can also safely say that Ronald Reagan wouldn’t have made his ardent supporter, Jerry Falwell, Sr., founder of the Moral Majority as well as of Liberty University, head of the Education Department either.
But here is Trump, ready to hand the job to a religious zealot whose sole goal, certainly by his actions and statements, would likely be to infuse evangelical Christian doctrine into public schools while silencing and instilling fear in students of minority faiths entirely, such as Muslims. Falwell, you’ll remember, called for students at Liberty University to carry guns on campus to protect themselves against terrorists ― in the context of the San Bernardino mass shooting ― whom he referred to as “those Muslims”:
I’ve always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in...and killed them.
Over the past eight years the Obama Education Department, through its Office of Civil Rights, has embraced LGBTQ rights. In 2010 it launched a campaign to fight anti-gay and anti-trans bullying in public schools. The Education Department collaborated with five other agencies to form stopbullying.gov, which includes resources for LGBTQ youth.
The Department of Education hosted five summits focused on ways to protect students, including queer students, from bullying and harassment. These summits included an LGBT Youth Summit in 2011 and a meeting with transgender students in 2015. The Obama Education Department also urged schools nationwide to allow LGBTQ student groups and alliances to form and meet on school grounds. And this year it issued a directive to high schools for the treatment of transgender students.
During those same years, according to Nico Lang in The Advocate, Falwell’s Liberty University hosted a two-day conference, “Understanding Same-sex Attractions and Their Consequences,” which included panelists from various anti-LGBTQ “conversion therapy” organizations. Kevin Roose, who went undercover for a semester at Liberty University in 2007, wrote in New York magazine that condemnation of homosexuality and praise for conversion therapy were also promoted on campus and taught in the classroom there:
While I was on campus, no political issue inspired more voluminous and one-sided debate than same-sex marriage. It was a frequent topic of sermons and convocation speeches, and the evils of same-sex marriage were taught in the classroom. (My Gen Ed textbook had a chapter called “Myths Behind the Homosexual Agenda.”) A campus pastor even started a support group, called “Masquerade,” for male students who felt the pull of gay attraction but wanted to cure themselves of it.
With all that in mind, plus the fact that Falwell’s father, whom he emulates in word and deed, said about gays after 9/11, “I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen,’” it’s hard to believe Falwell would continue the Obama administration’s pro-LGBTQ programs if he actually became Secretary of Education, nor would he likely take the job with any stipulation that he must so. (For the record, Falwell told the Associated Press the reason he turned down the job is that he only could commit to two years away from Liberty University, but Trump wanted a four- to six-year commitment.)
After Falwell passed on it, Trump offered the job to Amway billionaire Betsy DeVos, a Trump campaign backer whose family’s foundation is one of the largest contributors to the anti-equality National Organization for Marriage, giving $500,000 to the group. DeVos herself and her husband, fixtures of Michigan’s GOP, donated $200,000 to Michigan’s successful ballot initiative to ban marriage equality.
That was in 2004. Michigan LGBTQ activist Stephanie White, of Equality Michigan, believes it’s possible DeVos has evolved. As Politico reported:
[White] noted that DeVos doesn’t speak out against gay rights, and even called on Dave Agema, a Michigan Republican National Committee member, to step down from the RNC in 2014 after making comments highly critical of gays.
Still, DeVos and her husband have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the virulently anti-LGBTQ Focus on the Family ― labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center ― which also promotes “conversion therapy.”
National LGBT groups have been demanding answers from the Trump transition team and from DeVos herself about her agenda. But Eliza Byard, president of GLSEN, which advocates for LGBTQ students, notes that even if the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights initiatives are kept intact, DeVos’ promotion of vouchers and tuition tax credits also threatens students’ civil rights, including LGBTQ students:
True educational equity requires schools that serve the most at-risk students, including students of color; students with disabilities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and/or questioning (LGBTQ) students; and English-language learners. Vouchers and tuition tax credits do not advance this cause.
No matter Trump’s actual beliefs on LGBTQ rights, it’s clearly not something he’s taking into account while offering cabinet posts to his most loyal supporters (and don’t forget, anti-LGBTQ Mike Pence is heading up the transition team.)
That’s true whether they be billionaires who supported anti-LGBTQ efforts but backed Trump’s campaign, or religious extremists like Falwell, who helped turn out white evangelical voters for Trump and who would be hellbent on ending the separation of church and state, in public education and beyond.