U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan led a group of openly gay members of Congress in sending a letter of opposition on Thursday to the committee considering Secretary of Education nominee Betsy DeVos, citing her financial support for anti-gay causes and organizations.
The lawmakers — members of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus — are concerned DeVos would undermine efforts to extend protections to gay and transgender students.
"Betsy DeVos’ career has been marked by repeated attempts to undermine the rights of the LGBT community," the letter reads. "She and her family have donated extensively to groups which promote the idea that students who identify as LGBT must undergo 'conversion' therapy and have also affiliated with groups that oppose anti-bullying legislation."
The letter notes that DeVos and her family's foundations have donated $6.1 million to the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family since 1998.
The group supports the widely discredited practice of "conversion therapy," used as an effort to change a person's sexual orientation or gender identity, and has opposed anti-bullying campaigns that it says promote homosexuality among students.
The lawmakers cited millions of dollars in support from the DeVos family for a handful of other groups that promote anti-LGBT views, including the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights said the federal Title IX law covers discrimination based on sexual identity. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice have also said discrimination against transgender people, including imposing bathroom restrictions in schools, is a form of sex discrimination covered under the Civil Rights Act.
Pocan and his colleagues are worried those protections would be rolled back with DeVos leading the Department of Education.
"As you move to consider the nomination of Betsy DeVos, we strongly encourage you to seek out answers regarding Ms. DeVos’ stance on important education equity issues, including her views on protecting LGBT students from bullying and discrimination in K-12 and higher education spaces," the lawmakers wrote, adding that it is "imperative that any Secretary of Education nominee" denounce conversion therapy before being confirmed.
Stephanie White, executive director of Equality Michigan, told Politico in November she believes DeVos has evolved in her understanding of LGBT issues and said she is "cautiously optimistic" DeVos would not do anything to harm LGBT students.
"As Members of the LGBT community, we know our schools must be a safe place for all children. As you consider the nomination of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education, we strongly encourage you to stand up for the civil rights of LGBT students and ensure the next Secretary opposes any action to roll back our progress toward equality," Pocan and his colleagues wrote.