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Dr. Rachel Levine, the assistant secretary of health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the first out transgender official to serve in a Senate-confirmed position, is calling out Republican-led bills in various state legislatures targeting transgender people.
Already this year, governors in three separate states — Tennessee, Arkansas, and South Dakota — have signed legislation or issued executive orders barring transgender youth from competing in sports based on their gender identity, with several more states weighing similar measures.
Additionally, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson appears poised to sign a bill banning transgender minors from accessing gender-affirming care and allowing insurance companies to deny coverage for transition-related care, regardless of the age of the patient. Similar bills are currently working their way through the legislature in Alabama and Tennessee.
Speaking to NPR in an interview, Levine said the recent spate of bills is “really challenging to see.”
Levine particularly questioned the necessity of bills blocking transgender youth from accessing puberty blockers, hormones, or other gender-affirming treatments to treat gender dysphoria, arguing that state lawmakers should not be intervening in personal medical decisions.
“I really think that the decisions about health care for LGBTQ youth are really between the family, the child, the young person, their doctor, maybe their therapist,” she said.
Asked whether her comments risked politicizing the work that HHS is trying to do, Levine rejected the premise of the question, saying her comment was appropriate given her new position as one of the country’s top public health officials.
She also said that, as the first openly transgender person to serve as Assistant Secretary of Health, she has an obligation to educate Americans, and dispel myths about transgender individuals, through her public appearances.
“I don’t see it as a political issue at all. I view this as a health equity issue,” Levine said. “This is about fairness and equality and about specifically health equity, which is part of my portfolio. So I don’t see any risk in terms of politicization of this issue.”
Many Republican lawmakers have falsely claimed the anti-transgender bills are motivated by a recent nondiscrimination order issued by President Biden, although identical bills were introduced in legislatures last year, well before Biden won the Democratic Party’s nomination for the presidency.
But — ignoring the obvious political motivations of Republicans, some of whom see transgender rights as a galvanizing issue in their favor — Levine suggested that part of the impetus for the bills is that most Americans simply don’t know transgender individuals personally, and thus, don’t understand what it means to be transgender, or the science or health-related issues involved in transitioning.
“I like to quote that sage Yoda from Star Wars. You know, ‘Fear is the path that leads to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.’ I think that people fear what they don’t understand,” Levine said.
Levine, who previously served as Pennsylvania’s top public health officer, has encountered hostility since being nominated for her current position by President Biden. Right-wing media misgendered her in their stories, she was ridiculed by conservatives for her gender identity. and most prominent religious and conservative activist groups opposed her appointment.
During her confirmation hearing last month, Levine was grilled by Sen. Rand Paul over past statements she made in support of gender-affirming care for transgender youth. Paul attempted to cast her views as extreme, and even compared gender-confirmation surgery to “genital mutilation.”
Following her confirmation, Levine urged young transgender people not to give up hope, referencing her treatment by Paul and telling those youth: “Sadly, some of the challenges you face are from people who would seek to use your identity and circumstances as a weapon. It hurts. I know.
“I cannot promise you that these attacks will immediately cease, but I will do everything I can to support you and advocate for you,” she added, according to Pennsylvania radio station WKOK. “President Obama often reminded us that not all progress goes in a straight line. What I can tell you is that there is a place for you in America and in our government.. Our ‘more perfect union’ includes you, too.”
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