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An openly gay congressman has injected conversion therapy -- which aims to use counseling and often religious teaching to convert someone who is homosexual -- into the debate over President Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of education.
U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, a Madison-area Democrat who has called for prohibiting the use of such therapy on minors, attacked Betsy DeVos in a letter on Jan. 11, 2017, six days before her Senate confirmation hearing.
The letter, signed by Pocan and the other four co-chairs of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus, was sent to the leaders of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which is scheduled to vote on DeVos’ nomination on Jan. 31, 2017. The letter said DeVos, an education activist and a major Republican donor from Michigan, has tried to undermine the rights of people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
And it included a claim about conversion therapy and students, saying of DeVos:
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 next secretary of education must represent all students in our country. Anyone who promotes such fervently anti-LGBT viewpoints is wholly unqualified to serve as the secretary of education.
So, Pocan is charging that DeVos and her family "have donated extensively to groups which promote the idea that students who identify as LGBT must undergo 'conversion' therapy."
More on DeVos, conversion therapy
DeVos, whose wealth is estimated by Bloomberg at $130 million, is the daughter-in-law of billionaire Richard DeVos, the co-founder of Amway. She was part of a previous Pocan claim, that Trump's Cabinet appointments have a net worth of "more than a third of America." Our rating was Mostly True. One-third of American households have a combined net worth of roughly zero. So, the combined net worth of Trump Cabinet members is greater, though so is that of any American who has a net worth of more than zero.
At DeVos’ confirmation hearing, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Penn., accused DeVos of giving $25,000 to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which has lobbied for more rights for college students accused of sexual assault. PolitiFact Pennsylvania rated the claim Mostly True.
DeVos was also asked about her family donating to groups that push conversion therapy. She disputed the characterization of her family’s donations and, though Pocan’s claim doesn’t refer to her personal position on conversion therapy, DeVos said she has "never believed in that."
Conversion therapy -- also known as reparative therapy and sexual orientation change effort -- is supported by some Christian groups, such as Focus on the Family, which says it should be available for people who have "unwanted homosexual attractions."
A number of medical groups warn of its dangers and at least two of them -- the American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Family Physicians -- outright oppose it. The association says the risks include depression, anxiety and self-destructive behavior.
Money part of Pocan’s claim
The office cited reports from two interest groups on Colorado-based Focus on the Family, which was founded by James Dobson, an evangelical Christian. One says says the DeVos family has given more than $6.7 million to Focus on the Family and the other says DeVos and her husband, Dick, have given $275,000 to the group.
We found a comparable figure by checking federal tax records. They show that from 2003 to 2015, the Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation of Holland, Mich., gave $5.7 million to Focus on the Family. DeVos was listed as the foundation’s vice president, though at her Senate confirmation hearing, she said that was a "clerical error."
In contrast, Pocan’s office did not cite any reports on DeVos giving to the Traditional Values Coalition, a California-based conservative religious activist group. And we found nothing in tax records to indicate DeVos contributions to the coalition.
(Two web articles say the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation has given money to the Traditional Values Coalition. But the article appears to mix up the coalition with the Michigan-based Foundation for Traditional Values, which the DeVos foundation has supported.)
Conversion therapy part of the claim
As for the second part of Pocan’s claim, we found indications that both groups cited by the congressman support conversion therapy. But no evidence that they believe that students who identify as LGBT must undergo it. And a spokeswoman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks such groups, said the center is not aware of either group making such a statement.
Focus on the Family has issued statements in support of people changing their orientation, including this one from June 2013:
God’s help usually doesn’t come as a fast fix. It’s often a long process. Many times it takes counseling, Bible study, prayer and community support — but it can be done. Here at Focus we’ve seen marriages reconciled. We’ve seen people who struggle with unwanted same-sex attraction change. We’ve seen people experience real transformation in their thoughts, behaviors, attractions and identity.
The group also maintains a web page entitled "Leaving Homosexuality." One section notes there is opposition to conversion therapy, but states "there is a great deal of evidence that also shows that people have been helped" by such therapy. It says "individuals should have the availability of professional therapy options for unwanted homosexual attractions and behavior."
A Focus on the Family spokesman told us that "many individuals -- including students -- with same sex-attractions find those feelings to be in conflict with their faith and Focus on the Family strongly supports their right to seek help from licensed mental health professionals as they work to resolve this conflict and steward their sexuality according to their religious beliefs."
The evidence is less clear for the Traditional Values Coalition, which hosted a "Christian Inaugural Gala" as part of Trump’s inauguration.
The Los Angeles Times reported on a conversion therapy conference that was led by evangelist Louis P. Sheldon, the coalition’s founder. But the conference was in 1990, the article didn’t mention students and we didn’t find any more recent statements from the coalition about conversion therapy.
To be sure, the coalition is not viewed as friendly to gay people.
Its website says military chaplains are being prevented "from speaking out in any way against homosexuality." And in 2015, the coalition filed a lawsuit, which was dismissed, seeking to block the Fairfax County School Board in Virginia from implementing protections the board put in place for gay and transgender students.
Pocan says DeVos and her family "have donated extensively to groups which promote the idea that students who identify as LGBT must undergo 'conversion' therapy."
A family foundation that listed DeVos as the vice president has given millions of dollars over more than a decade to one of two groups cited by Pocan, Focus on the Family. But we couldn’t find evidence of donations to the Traditional Values Coalition. And although there are indications that both groups support conversion therapy, we didn’t find evidence that they promote the idea that students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender must undergo it.
For a statement that contains only an element of truth, our rating is Mostly False.
Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus co-chairman, letter to the leaders of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Jan. 11, 2017
Email, U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan communications director David Kolovson, Jan. 13, 2017
Email, American Federation For Children government affairs associate Justin Moralez, Jan. 16, 2017
Email, Focus on the Family vice president of communications Paul Batura, Jan. 18, 2017
Email, Focus on the Family issues analyst Jeff Johnston, Jan. 19, 2017
Focus on the Family, news release, June 21, 2013
Focus on the Family, "The Right to Counseling for Unwanted Same-Sex Attractions," accessed Jan. 19, 2017
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Scott Walker endorses political benefactor Betsy DeVos," Jan. 17, 2017
PolitiFact California, "Pence's support for conversion therapy not a settled matter," Dec. 2, 2016
USA Today, "What you need to know about 'conversion therapy,’" April 10, 2015
NARAL/Pro-Choice America, "Memo On The Extreme Backers Of The "March For Life"
And The Anti-Choice Movement," Jan. 15, 2015
Los Angeles Times, "Gay Forces Confront Sheldon in Capital : Civil Rights: The Traditional Values Coalition's chief is assailed over his "reparative therapy" theory of reversing homosexuality," Jan. 27, 1990
Common Cause, "Unlimited and undisclosed," February 2015
Inside Philanthropy, "School Choice, But Much More: Making Sense of DeVos Family Philanthropy," March 1, 2016
Email, Human Rights Campaign rapid response press secretary Rob Flaherty, Jan. 20, 2017
Interview, Southern Poverty Law Center communications associate Rebecca Sturtevant, Jan. 20, 2017
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