Betsy DeVos, the polarizing U.S. Secretary of Education appointed by President Donald Trump, got a surprise dose of LGBTQ pride when she visited a Michigan school on Tuesday, May 29. DeVos reportedly stopped in at Grand Rapids Public Museum School to learn about one of its place-based learning initiatives focusing on the restoration of the Grand River. There, a Michigan teen wore a trans pride flag to meet DeVos and it was such a powerful image.
The student, 14-year-old Torin Hodgman, who identifies as genderqueer and uses they/them pronouns, per Michigan Live, wanted to ask DeVos what she was prepared to do to protect LGBTQ students from harassment so they can feel safe at school.
"Out of all LGBTQ ... and actually all teenagers, transgender and questioning people have a higher rate of suicide and deaths than anybody else," Hodgman told Michigan Live. They didn't get to ask DeVos that question, so instead, they decided to make a statement by wearing a trans pride flag. The video of the encounter surfaced online, and in it, DeVos didn't seem to react to the flag. Being that public schools are a place for children of all different backgrounds, sexualities, races, and gender identities, Hodgman at the very least wanted to assert that by proudly wearing the trans flag.
DeVos has repeatedly come under fire, not just for the administration's policies on LGBTQ harassment in schools, but for the general welfare of students facing discrimination. In February, the Department of Education announced that it won't investigate bathroom and locker room complaints from trans students, per NPR. Department spokeswoman Liz Hill told NPR in February that "Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, not gender identity." Critics of the department's move have said that the policy is unbelievably cruel and leaves vulnerable transgender and gender nonconforming students unprotected.
DeVos's confirmation hearing in 2017 was a mess — and it got some media attention for being, well, messy. DeVos struggled to answer basic questions about equality and inclusion, and she apparently misunderstood the definition of education terms like "growth" and "proficiency." But the department's operations have largely taken a back seat to all the other controversies swirling about the White House.
She comes to the role with the conservative school of thought (pun not intended) that states and individual schools should handle their own policies, and the government should be restrained from interfering. For instance, in September 2017, DeVos rolled back controversial Obama-era guidance on how universities should handle sexual assault complaints on campus.
A bombshell New York Times report by Erica Green in June 2017 also found that the department was scaling back investigations into civil rights violations at public schools and universities (Hill, the department's spokeswoman, responded to the report by saying that the department had streamlined the process, which explained the speed of the closures. She told The Times, “Justice delayed is justice denied, and justice for many complainants has been denied for too long"). In a two-month period in 2017, the Education Department reportedly closed or dismissed more civil rights complaints than prior administrations had closed or dismissed in similar periods of time, Politico reported.
Also in June 2017, DeVos blocked the Obama administration’s protections for students attending for-profit colleges, which would've provided debt forgiveness to those students who were defrauded by the colleges. Time reported that DeVos said the rules created a “muddled process that’s unfair to students and schools, and puts taxpayers on the hook for significant costs.” Like many of Trump's appointees, DeVos's operative refrain is "undo Obama-era protections."
All the more courageous it was, then, that Hodgman was able to make a statement by wearing the trans flag — a celebration of the trans identity arguably in the face of its greatest political enemy for young people. It has the potential to catch the eyes of plenty of gender nonconforming LGBTQ people, show them what quiet bravery looks like, and inspire them not to be afraid.