President-elect Joe Biden announced Tuesday, January 19, 2021, that he will nominate Pennsylvania’s top health official, Rachel Levine, to be his assistant secretary of health. Levine, a pediatrician, would become the first openly transgender federal official to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
“Dr. Rachel 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,” Biden said in a statement. “She is a historic and deeply qualified choice to help lead our administration’s health efforts.”
Levine serves as Pennsylvania’s secretary of health and has been leading the state’s public health response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Biden’s transition team noted that Levine — first appointed by Gov. Tom Wolf (D) in 2017 — was confirmed three times by the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania state Senate to serve as secretary of health and the state’s physician general.
Last year, as Levine rose to prominence leading Pennsylvania’s pandemic response, she became the target of nasty attacks on her gender identity.
One, 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 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 2015, Wolf first 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.
“With very few exceptions, my being transgender is not an issue,” she told The Washington Post in 2016, declining to comment on an attack by a former Florida congressman.
But after Levine received a promotion to become Pennsylvania’s health secretary, the coronavirus raised her profile across the state. And as she sought to contain the pandemic with aggressive social distancing rules, it also made her the target of more frequent abuse.
Last May, a radio personality repeatedly misgendered Levine, calling the health secretary “sir” at least three times while questioning her on 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.”