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In a historic move, President-elect Joe Biden has tapped Dr. Rachel Levine, a transgender woman who is Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Health, to serve as the Assistant Secretary for Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Levine becomes the first out transgender person nominated to a senate-confirmable position. If confirmed, she will not only make history, but will become the highest-ranking transgender official in the United States, surpassing Delaware State Sen. Sarah McBride, who currently holds that title after being elected last November.
Levine, who was previously confirmed three times by the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania State Senate as both Pennsylvania’s physician general and its Secretary of Health, has been thrust into the spotlight out of necessity due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
She has earned praise for her serious and scientific-based response to the pandemic, with some experts, including Dr. Deborah Birx, President Trump’s COVID-19 response coordinator, praising the state for its efforts to get the virus under control.
However, she has also encountered intense criticism from Republican lawmakers — some of whom have called for her resignation or ouster — and conservative Democrats in rural areas of the state for her slow, cautious approach to reopening businesses in certain regions based on numbers of positive tests.
“Dr. Rachel Levine will bring the steady leadership and essential expertise we need to get people through this pandemic — no matter their zip code, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability — and meet the public health needs of our country in this critical moment and beyond,” Biden said in a statement announcing her nomination. “She is a historic and deeply qualified choice to help lead our administration’s health efforts.”
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris called Levine a “remarkable public servant” who possesses the “knowledge and expertise” needed to respond to the pandemic effectively.
“President Biden and I look forward to working with [Levine] to meet the unprecedented challenges facing Americans and rebuild our country in a way that lifts everyone up,” Harris said in a statement.
Levine, a graduate of Harvard and the Tulane University School of Medicine, completed her medical training at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York City, specializing in pediatrics and adolescent medicine. She has become a well-known speaker and author who has written extensively about the opioid crisis, medical marijuana, adolescent medicine, eating disorders, and LGBTQ-affirming care.
Levine’s historic nomination earned praise from LGBTQ circles.
“President-elect Biden said throughout his campaign that his administration would represent America. Today, he made clear that transgender people are an important part of our country,” Mara Keisling, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said in a statement. “President-elect Biden, like he has done throughout his time in public service, is helping to break down barriers.
“I want to congratulate my good friend Dr. Levine on her nomination,” added Keisling. “She has demonstrated her commitment to public service and is highly skilled. She has earned the chance to serve our country at the highest levels. We look forward to more transgender and non-binary Americans being appointed in the new Biden administration.”
Rea Carey, the executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, called Levine “imminently qualified” for the position in the Biden administration, calling her work in Pennsylvania “exemplary and impactful to the health of all Pennsylvanians.”
“When the National LGBTQ Task Force praised the nomination of Pete Buttigieg as Transportation Secretary, we said it should the ‘the first of many firsts,’ and this is exactly what we meant. The appointment of more diverse LGBTQ people at all level of the administration is imperative and that includes trans and non-binary people and people of color,” Carey said in a statement.
“We are thrilled that Dr. Levine has been nominated, especially at HHS, where the LGBTQ community has been under serious attack by the outgoing administration,” Carey continued. “She has served Pennsylvania well and when the Senate confirms her, she will serve the country well, attending to the health needs of all Americans.”
The Human Rights Campaign praised Levine as a “highly experienced and qualified public health leader,” praising her response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“At a time when access to health care is a growing crisis for transgender people made worse by anti-LGBTQ legislation and legislators across the nation, Dr. Levine has the empathy to understand the health needs of our diverse country and the skillset to improve them,” HRC President Alphonso David said in a statement. “At a time when COVID-19 still rages, we strongly urge speedy confirmation of Dr. Rachel Levine’s nomination by the United States Senate to aid the Biden-Harris administration’s efforts to contain this pandemic and rebuild our nation better, stronger and more equal than before.”
The LGBTQ Victory Institute, which has long advocated for LGBTQ representation and visibility in government, enthusiastically welcomed Levine’s nomination, referring to her experience dealing with the pandemic in Pennsylvania as “invaluable.”
“[Levine’s] nomination is groundbreaking and shows the Biden administration will choose the most qualified individuals to lead our nation regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity,” Annise Parker, the president and CEO of LGBTQ Victory Institute, said in a statement. “Dr. Levine is making history and will transform Americans’ perceptions of trans people when she takes office and begins to work on their behalf.”
Unfortunately, Levine’s transgender identity has often been weaponized against her, especially by conservatives and COVID skeptics who have balked at her orders calling for shutdowns or increased social distancing measures in areas with higher infection rates.
One critic of Levine’s displayed an electronic sign attacking Levine at the gateway to the borough of Waterford, Pa., with a message reading: “Don’t let a man in a dress rule us Waterford.”
Other personal attacks lobbed against her include a Facebook meme circulated by critics referred to her as a “guy who wears a bra,” a local restaurant naming a dish of “two spicy cheese balls” after her with a description that mocked her gender identity and assigned sex at birth, and a central Pennsylvania fair that held a dunk-tank fundraiser with a man wearing a black-and-pink dress, wig, and glasses who organizers later referred to as “Dr. Levine.”
The frequency of such attacks prompted Levine to speak out against the perpetrators and urge Pennsylvania residents to be more tolerant of LGBTQ individuals and of diversity in general.
To that end, Ruben Gonzales, the executive director of the Victory Institute, noted that there could likely be a battle over her confirmation in the U.S. Senate, although Democrats — at least on paper, along with the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Harris — have the votes to confirm her if needed.
“We know transphobic members of the U.S. Senate will try to block her nomination because of her gender identity — ignoring her qualifications to try and score political points with extremists in their political base,” Gonzales said in a statement. “But our Presidential Appointments Initiative coalition of more than 30 LGBTQ and allied organizations is ready to fight like hell to defend Dr. Levine and ensure she is judged on her qualifications and nothing else. The majority of Americans want whoever is best prepared to fight this pandemic and that person is Dr. Levine.”
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