As Pennsylvania’s secretary of health, Levine has risen to national prominence for leading the state’s public health response to the coronavirus pandemic, despite repeated and ugly attacks on her gender identity.
Biden’s transition team noted that Levine — appointed by Gov. Tom Wolf (D) in 2017 as acting health secretary — was confirmed three times by the Republican-controlled state Senate to serve as secretary of health and the state’s physician general. At the time, she was one of only a handful of transgender officials serving in elected or appointed offices nationwide.
If confirmed as assistant secretary of health, Levine would be the highest-ranking transgender official in the U.S. government.
“President-elect Biden said throughout his campaign that his administration would represent America,” said Mara Keisling, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. “Today, he made clear that transgender people are an important part of our country.”
Serving under Xavier Becerra, Biden’s nominee to head the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Levine would oversee key health offices and programs across the department, 10 regional health offices nationwide, the Office of the Surgeon General and the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps.
Her nomination comes after an election season in which a record number of LGBTQ candidates ran for office but after four years of a presidential administration that repeatedly erased protections for transgender people — in health care, federal employment, federal prisons, homeless shelters and other housing services receiving federal funding.
Biden has signaled a significant shift from the Trump administration when it comes to inclusion of the transgender community. He mentioned transgender people in his presidential acceptance speech, and released a lengthy platform outlining his plans to prioritize LGBTQ rights. Biden also named to his transition team Shawn Skelly, a former special assistant to the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, and coordinator of the Defense Department Warfighter Senior Integration Group. Skelly was the first transgender veteran to be appointed by a U.S. president.
Over the past two months, advocates have urged Biden to nominate LGBTQ leaders to key positions in the administration. Biden named Pete Buttigieg to lead the Transportation Department, making him the first openly LGBTQ person nominated to a permanent Cabinet position. As the highest-ranking appointed transgender official in the United States, Levine was often near the top of advocates’ lists of suggested names for top roles.
“She’s just so highly qualified, regardless of her gender identity,” said Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, who was the first openly transgender appointee in the Obama White House. Freedman-Gurspan happened to be in Pennsylvania with friends on Tuesday morning when the news of Levine’s nomination broke.
“We all screamed,” she said. “It is well deserved and I think it sends a message to the trans community about how valued we are. We have a seat at the table. There’s no doubt about that.”
A graduate of Harvard University and Tulane Medical School, Levine was the chief resident at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, where she also taught. In 2014, she was a top doctor at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center and served on the board of Equality Pennsylvania, a statewide gay rights group, when Wolf asked her to co-chair his transition team for health matters.
The following year, Wolf appointed her as Pennsylvania’s physician general, the state’s top doctor. Impressed with her background in behavioral and mental health, the state Senate voted unanimously to approve her, paying little attention to her gender identity during the confirmation process.
But after Levine received a promotion to become Pennsylvania’s health secretary, the coronavirus pandemic raised her profile across the state and the country. As she sought to contain the virus with aggressive social distancing rules, it also made her the target of more frequent abuse.
One attack in particular made headlines and earned a scathing rebuke from the governor: a photo of a man sitting in a carnival dunk tank wearing a floral print dress and a long blond wig. The man said he was going for a Marilyn Monroe look, but organizers of the carnival fundraiser in Bloomsburg, Pa., said he resembled Levine.
“Dr. Levine? Thank you. You were a hit and raised a lot of money for the local fire companies. Wonder why so many were trying to dunk you?” the Bloomsburg Fair Association wrote in July on Facebook, adding a smiling emoji, before deleting the post.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has brought hate and transphobia into the spotlight through relentless comments and slurs directed at Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine, who is a highly skilled, valued, and capable member of my administration and Transgender,” Wolf wrote in a statement at the time. “The derogatory incident involving the Bloomsburg Fair is the latest of these vile acts, which by extension impact Transgender people across the commonwealth and nation.”
In May, a radio personality repeatedly misgendered Levine, calling the health secretary “sir” at least three times while questioning her about the state’s coronavirus response. A commissioner at a township near Pittsburgh said he was “tired of listening to a guy dressed up like a woman.” After Pennsylvania ordered its residents to wear masks at all times in public, a Facebook page run by one town shared a meme referring to her as “a guy who wears a bra.”
“The entire nation got to watch her succeed in the face of really difficult attacks,” said state Rep. Brian Sims (D), an LGBTQ activist who has known Levine for years. “Republicans still deny her basic equality, and she focuses on saving their lives.”
Sims has seen how Levine’s leadership has forced people in the state to better understand the transgender community, and to learn how to address transgender people like her. “Never before have I seen more people proactively, correctly using pronouns,” even some of those who oppose her, Sims said. “She’s 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.”
Levine rarely talks about herself publicly, Sims said. But he remembered a powerful moment from July, when Levine began her regularly scheduled pandemic briefing to directly respond to the transphobic attacks she had been suffering for months.
“While these individuals may think that they are only expressing their displeasure with me, they are, in fact hurting the thousands of LGBTQ Pennsylvanians who suffer directly from these current demonstrations of harassment,” she said.
Despite a Supreme Court ruling just a month earlier barring employment discrimination for gay and transgender people, Levine said, Pennsylvania is one of many states where LGBTQ people can still be denied housing and public accommodations in places that do not have local nondiscrimination ordinances. Transgender women of color in particular face high rates of violence and murder, she added.
“We have not made progress unless we have all made progress,” she said. “As for me, I have no room in my heart for hatred, and frankly I do not have time for intolerance. My heart is full with a burning desire to help people and my time is full with working toward protecting the public health of everyone in Pennsylvania. I will stay laser-focused on that goal.”