Story at a glance
- President-elect Joe Biden will nominate Rachel Levine as assistant secretary of Health and Human Services.
- Levine, a physician and professor, currently serves as Pennsylvania’s Health Secretary.
- As a transgender woman, her confirmation by the Senate would be historic.
The Biden Administration is setting up to be perhaps the most diverse in United States history and, with the latest nomination, goes beyond Cabinet secretaries.
If Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine is confirmed as assistant secretary of Health and Human Services, she would be the first transgender federal official approved by the Senate.
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In a statement, President-elect Joe Biden said, “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. She is a historic and deeply qualified choice to help lead our administration’s health efforts.”
A Harvard graduate and Tulane Medical School alumna, Levine is a physician, professor of pediatrics and psychology at the Penn State College of Medicine and president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials — all in addition to her day job, in which she has handled Pennsylvania’s response to the opioid epidemic and the coronavirus pandemic.
The state has enacted a stricter lockdown than others, but outbreaks in prisons and a recent surge in cases have tested its resources. In May, Levine fell under scrutiny for removing her mother from a personal care home among statewide outbreaks, although the facility was not under her agency's jurisdiction.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has been an ardent supporter of Levine, coming to her defense against transphobic attacks, and congratulated her on Twitter.
Congrats to @PAHealthDept @SecretaryLevine.— Governor Tom Wolf (@GovernorTomWolf) January 19, 2021
Dr. Levine has been a wise, calm, and dedicated partner during this pandemic and I couldn’t be prouder of the tireless work she’s done to serve Pennsylvanians.
She will be missed, but I know she will be a tremendous leader at @HHSGov. https://t.co/OPyOzskDWw
Despite her credentials — and being confirmed three times by a Republican-led state legislature — Levine could still face some opposition from national lawmakers, but Democrats and advocates are poised to support her to this historic appointment.
“We know transphobic members of the U.S. Senate will try to block her nomination because of her gender identity – ignoring her qualifications to try and score political points with extremists in their political base. But our Presidential Appointments Initiative coalition of more than 30 LGBTQ and allied organizations is ready to fight like hell to defend Dr. Levine and ensure she is judged on her qualifications and nothing else. The majority of Americans want whoever is best prepared to fight this pandemic and that person is Dr. Levine,” said Ruben Gonzales, Executive Director of LGBTQ Victory Institute, in a statement.
Still, LGBTQ+ advocates are optimistic and excited by what this could mean for the community.
“Under Secretary Azar, HHS rolled back healthcare protections for transgender Americans and regularly engaged in policy attacks on other marginalized communities. With Dr. Rachel Levine’s nomination, HHS is now set to be home to the first transgender Senate-confirmed federal official, a truly historic and deserved piece of visibility for transgender Americans,” said Sarah Kate Ellis, President and CEO of GLAAD.
A former linebacker and mother of two, Levine isn't easily scared off. She transitioned in 2011 and, while her immediate family has mostly been accepting, she knows that existing publicly as a transgender person in America remains dangerous.
“It just fuels my desire to do my job and to advocate,” she told The Washington Post in 2016, when she was just one of a handful of transgender public officials in the country.
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