On March 26, Dr. Rachel Levine was appointed the Assistant Secretary for Health in the United States’ Department of Health and Human Services. Prior to this position, Dr. Levine held the title of Secretary within the Pennsylvania Department of Health. This national station means that Dr. Levine is the first openly transgender person to become a federal official that has been confirmed by the Senate.
Levine’s confirmation was, as expected, almost exclusively along party lines, although two non-Democratic party members did vote to confirm. Moderate Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) voted in her favor.
Since the announcement of the Senate’s decision (52-48 votes in Levine’s favor), there has been celebration as well as condemnation from the opposing political parties. Levine’s official Twitter account has been bombarded with messages following her Jan. 19 announcement that she would be stepping down as Pennsylvania’s Physician General.
These messages have been extremely mixed in tone, but not so in subject matter. Most of the Tweets regarding Levine’s work during COVID-19 are positive, one even claiming that Levine has been “a fierce warrior in the battle against COVID-19 for Pennsylvanians” (bit.ly/3u73p2B). The other Tweets have taken aim at Levine’s appearance or gender identity rather than her career. Many Tweets use Levine’s dead (prior to transitioning) name, Richard, or simply disrespect her pronouns and gender identity such as the Tweet “she is a man” (bit.ly/3w9wyfp). Levine has not engaged with these negative comments.
Upon nominating Levine for Assistant Secretary for Health in January of this year, President Biden said she “will bring the steady leadership and essential expertise we need to get people through this pandemic – no matter their race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability — and meet the public health needs of our country in this critical moment and beyond” (wapo.st/3rteQ2D).
The fact that Levine is an openly transgender individual has created tension between members of the Senate. One such federal official is Senator Rand Paul, who questioned Levine on her support of minors in their decisions to transition via hormone blockers or gender-confirming surgery. Levine stated that she would be willing to further discuss her views on transgender medicine as it is “a very complex and nuanced field” (bit.ly/3sAmUQO).
During her time as Pennsylvania’s Physician General, Levine was responsible for providing aid to opioid users as well as dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Levine utilized both of these issues as a launching pad into discussing equity within the American health care system.
She identifies as Jewish and has been a strong advocate for all people of color before, as well as during, the pandemic. “COVID-19 has shown us the tip of the iceberg of the lack of health equity,” Levine explained. “Socioeconomic status, food security, affordable housing, access to childcare and healthcare, systemic racism and discrimination all contribute to the disparities in COVID-19 and other diseases” (go.nature.com/3cxxrqm).
Levine has worked hard to prove herself as an academic while vying for her undergraduate degree at Harvard and her medical degree at Tulane University School of Medicine. She feels she has also had to take extra steps to prove herself as an employee during her residency at Mount Sinai Medical Center and again during her teaching position at Pennsylvania State Hershey Medical Center.
She has made it clear that she will continue to pursue justice for all throughout the remainder of her career. Also serving as a board member of Equality Pennsylvania, Levine has no qualms with sharing her passionate support for the LGBTQ community.
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