On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate voted to confirm Dr. Rachel Levine as the Assistant Secretary of Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, making her the first-ever out transgender presidential appointee to be Senate-confirmed.
The final vote was 52-48, with two Republicans, Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), joining all the upper chamber’s Democrats in voting to confirm the former Pennsylvania Secretary of Health.
Earlier in the day, all 50 Senate Democrats, plus Collins and Murkowski, had voted to end debate on Levine’s nomination, while the rest of the Republican caucus voted against moving forward with an up-or-down vote on the nomination.
In a floor speech several hours before the final vote, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) noted the historical significance and modern-day practical implications of confirming Levine.
“As transgender Americans suffer higher rates of abuse, homelessness, and depression than almost every other group, it’s important to have national figures like Dr. Levine who, by virtue of being in the public spotlight, will help break down barriers of ignorance and fear,” Schumer said. “Pennsylvania’s political leaders say Dr. Levine has forced people in their state to better understand the transgender community. One state legislator said: ‘She has robbed people of the false premise that they don’t know any trans people and therefore don’t need to be respectful of trans people.’
“Despite several attacks on her gender identity over the past year, Dr. Levine has stayed laser-focused on helping the state of Pennsylvania manage and respond to COVID,” Schumer added. “The quality of her public service is reflected by the fact that she was confirmed not once, not twice, but three times by the Republican-led State Senate to serve first as physician general and then as Health Secretary. The U.S. Senate should follow suit today and make Dr. Levine the Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services.”
The LGBTQ Victory Institute, a national organization dedicated to creating a pipeline of LGBTQ public leaders and ensuring representation in all levels of government, applauded Levine’s confirmation.
The Institute’s Presidential Appointments Initiative, which includes a coalition of more than 30 LGBTQ and allied organizations seeking out qualified individuals to serve at various levels of government, had previously urged President Joe Biden to nominate an out LGBTQ Cabinet Secretary — Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg — and other out LGBTQ appointees, including Levine, to posts within the federal government. The Institute is also currently lobbying the president to nominate openly LGBTQ women and people of color to ambassadorships and an openly U.S. Supreme Court Justice, should a vacancy open up on the nation’s highest court.
“President Biden committed to appointing our nation’s most qualified leaders to tackle the pandemic, and he delivered in choosing Dr. Levine,” Annise Parker, the president and CEO of LGBTQ Victory Institute, said in a statement. “Yet the importance of this moment extends well beyond the health of our nation alone.
“At a time when hateful politicians are weaponizing trans lives for their own perceived political gain, Dr. Levine’s confirmation lends focus to the contributions trans people make to our nation and deflates absurd arguments calling for their exclusion,” Parker added, pointing to various bills in more than two dozen states seeking to deny gender-affirming care to transgender youth, bar transgender student-athletes from competing in sports, bar transgender individuals from using facilities consistent with their gender identity, or allowing individuals and businesses to claim religious exemptions to justify denying goods and services to transgender people.
“Dr. Levine’s confirmation is an exciting, profound moment in our nation’s history and will be viewed as a milestone in our community’s march toward equality,” Ruben Gonzales, the executive director of the LGBTQ Victory Institute, said in a statement. “While a bipartisan majority of senators voted with the best interests of our country in mind, a minority prioritized anti-trans hate over an honest review of Dr. Levine’s qualifications. Their vote to ride the extremist political winds of the moment will be judged in time, because history never looks fondly on those who vote on the side of bigotry.”
Other LGBTQ groups also praised Levine’s confirmation.
“It is a historic, inspiring day for the LGBTQ community, particularly transgender people, who are finally able to see themselves reflected at the highest levels of our government,” Alphonso David, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement praising the assistant secretary’s qualifications for her new post.
“With the confirmation of Dr. Rachel Levine, we are one step closer to a government that mirrors the beautiful diversity of its people. It is absolutely critical that everybody has a seat at the table and the Biden-Harris administration has made a dedicated, applaudable effort to ensure that outcome,” David added. “At a time when transgender children are under attack by state legislatures across the U.S., and access to healthcare is systematically threatened for transgender and gender-nonconforming people, Dr. Levine has the compassion and understanding to improve the health needs of our diverse and growing population.”
Liz Seaton, the policy director of the National LGBTQ Task Force Action Fund, praised Levine’s qualifications and expertise in public health matters, adding: “Our country will be in good hands as we face unprecedented health challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic to the epidemic of opioid addiction and the longstanding HIV/AIDS epidemic.”
“We are grateful to President Biden for nominating Dr. Levine, and we feel certain she will serve with honor and integrity,” Seaton added. “Dr. Levine’s confirmation by the Senate today sends a strong message, especially to the LGBTQ people of this country: please step forward to serve — your nation needs you and your expertise.”
“Dr. Rachel Levine’s confirmation as Assistant Secretary of Health is a testament to her experience and credentials as a medical professional, and to her unwavering commitment to public health and equality,” Sarah Kate Ellis, the president and CEO of the LGBTQ advocacy organization GLAAD, said in a statement. “As she has throughout her career, Dr. Levine will show the world that transgender people lead, serve and contribute — the kind of visibility and recognition that will save and inspire LGBTQ lives. In her historic role, Dr. Levine will open doors for health and for acceptance as she helps our country both heal, and grow.”
Levine’s nomination had riled up conservatives, who objected to her response to the COVID-19 pandemic, arguing that she was too strict in pushing lockdowns and social distancing measures to try and curb the virus’s spread, thereby hampering the ability of small businesses and schools — particularly those in less-populated areas of the state — to reopen. She was also criticized for the state’s slowness in rolling out vaccines, and high numbers of nursing home deaths under her watch.
Other social conservatives disapproved of Levine’s nomination due to her gender identity, and her advocacy of connecting transgender youth with gender-affirming care. In a tense exchange during her confirmation hearings, Sen. Rand Paul attacked Levine over her past comments on gender-affirming care for trans youth, seeking to portray her position as radical and problematic.
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