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Dr. Rachel Levine Confirmed to HHS Post, Makes Transgender History

Rachel Levine

Dr. Rachel Levine, the transgender woman who served as Pennsylvania secretary of health, has been confirmed by the U.S. Senate as assistant secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

This makes Levine the first out trans person to receive Senate confirmation and the highest-ranking trans federal official. The vote Wednesday afternoon was 52-48, largely along party lines — all Democrats and independents for confirmation, all Republicans against except for Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Sen. Pat Toomey, from Levine's home state, was among the Republicans voting against her; he criticized her handling of the COVID-19 crisis in Pennsylvania.

As Pennsylvania’s top health official, Levine led the state’s response to the crisis. She endured intolerance and bigotry there, as in the confirmation process, where she was subjected to an anti-trans rant by Sen. Rand Paul. But she is widely respected for her composure and intelligence. A graduate of Harvard College and the Tulane University School of Medicine, Levine trained in pediatrics and adolescent medicine at New York City's Mount Sinai Medical Center. She previously served as physician general and assistant health secretary for Pennsylvania before being tapped as health secretary by Gov. Tom Wolf in 2018. In addition to her government posts, Levine is president-elect of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials and a professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at the Penn State College of Medicine. She is a trusted national speaker on issues ranging from the opioid crisis to LGBTQ+ health issues.

Even in the early days of the pandemic, Levine urged Pennsylvanians to "stay home, stay calm, and stay safe" and offered regular briefings on how the state was managing the crisis. There was some criticism of her and Wolf because COVID-19 patients were allowed to return to nursing homes after being released from hospitals, but nursing home trade groups in the state "have said they are not aware of the state’s guidance leading to any deaths or outbreaks and they aren’t aware of any facility that was forced to accept a COVID-positive patient against its wishes," reports Harrisburg, Pa.'s Patriot-News. Levine has also won praise for being proactive about the pandemic.

In nominating her for assistant HHS secretary in January, President Joe Biden said, “Dr. 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. She is a historic and deeply qualified choice to help lead our administration's health efforts."

Vice President Kamala Harris called Levine "a remarkable public servant with the knowledge and experience" to help control the COVID-19 pandemic.

LGBTQ+ groups praised the confirmation. Mayor Annise Parker, president and CEO of LGBTQ Victory Institute, released this statement: “President Biden committed to appointing our nation’s most qualified leaders to tackle the pandemic and he delivered in choosing Dr. Levine. 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. Her experience leading the health department in Pennsylvania will serve our country well and her unique perspective regarding healthcare for trans people will be invaluable.”

Victory Institute Executive Director Ruben Gonzales spoke to the divisiveness some senators brought to the confirmation: “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. 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 reactions:

Kevin Jennings, CEO, Lambda Legal: “The Senate’s confirmation of Dr. Levine marks the return of science, competence, and empathy to one of the most important institutions in our government and at one of the most critical public health moments in our nation’s history. Throughout her impressive career as a doctor and public servant, Dr. Levine has demonstrated a commitment to equity in health care and an understanding of how public health is inextricably linked to social justice. ... It is also important to mark this important moment for the visibility and inclusion of transgender people as well as their contributions to our society."

Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO, GLAAD: “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. 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.”

Alphonso David, president, Human Rights Campaign: “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. 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. ... At a time when transgender children are under attack by state legislatures across the U.S., and access to health care 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."

Shannon Minter, legal director, National Center for Lesbian Rights: “The bipartisan vote to confirm Dr. Levine as our nation’s next Assistant Secretary of Health shows how far our country has come in recognizing that being transgender has nothing to do with a person’s abilities. Dr. Levine has a long and distinguished history of public service. She is well-qualified for this important position, and our nation will be stronger for having someone of her caliber helping to lead our national health agenda. As a transgender person, I am encouraged by her success and proud to see so many transgender people stepping up to dedicate their experience and expertise to public service. I look forward to the day when every young person can grow up knowing that every path is open to them and that they will not be held back or limited simply because of who they are.”

Erin Uritus, CEO, Out & Equal Workplace Advocates: “Today, with Dr. Rachel Levine’s historic confirmation, transgender Americans will be able to see themselves in a position of profound leadership. Dr. Levine’s confirmation is more important than ever. Her leadership and expertise will help guide our country out of the COVID-19 pandemic into healthier, brighter days. Dr. Levine’s confirmation is significant on many levels. In recent years, HHS has served as a tool to target LGBTQ — especially transgender — health care rights. Most notably, HHS unraveled trans health protections implemented under Section 1557 on the Affordable Care Act. Dr. Levine will be able to bring new skillsets and empathy into this position to help protect LGBTQ health care rights.”

Winnie Stachelberg, executive vice president for external affairs, Center for American Progress: "Dr. Rachel Levine’s appointment reflects her years of competent, effective stewardship as the top public health official in the state of Pennsylvania. A long track record of success, amid the largest public health crisis in a century, speaks to her unimpeachable qualifications for the job. Her confirmation also marks a historic milestone in the push for a federal government that reflects and celebrates the diversity of its citizenry. Dr. Levine’s status as the highest-ranking openly transgender official to hold a position in the federal government demonstrates that representation in public spaces matters."

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