Pa. borough councilman blasted for transphobic Facebook post

Zach Cole (photo: Trafford Borough website)

LGBT advocates are blasting a borough councilmember in Trafford, Pa. for posting a transphobic Facebook comment about Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine. Trafford is a community of about 3,000 people just east of Pittsburgh.

On June 21, Zach Cole, a Republican serving on the borough’s governing body, wished Levine a Happy Father’s Day and deadnamed her by referring to her as “Richard.” Levine has two children. Cole posted the comment on Gov. Tom Wolf’s Facebook page.

Levine is the highest-ranking transgender official in Pennsylvania and the only trans person to hold a cabinet position in the state. Cole didn’t return emails seeking comment. But he posted the following statement on his Facebook page.

“This past Sunday, Father’s day, I made a comment directed at Health Secretary Levine on Gov. Tom Wolf’s Facebook post [sic]. The backlash from Wolf supporters and left wing nut jobs came swift. They verbally attacked my infant son, contacted other council members, and even attempted to hijack my facebook account. They can try with all of their might but I will not back down.

“Was my comment in bad taste? Absolutely. Should I have done it? Not with the positions I hold. It was out of character for me to act out in anger. But being the imperfect human being I am, I did.

“I am angry at [Levine] due to [alleged] mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic. I am angry I have been refused service for not wearing a mask, even though many sources say masks are unnecessary. I am angry the economy in the commonwealth has been destroyed. I am angry Pennsylvanians have lost their livelihood. I am angry Pennsylvanians have unnecessarily died in nursing homes because of policy created by [Levine and Wolf]. I am angry that [Levine’s] mother was removed from [a personal care facility] while these policies were being implemented. Most of all I am angry that [Wolf] and his regime have gone against the constitution, our senators, representatives, and Pennsylvanian voters who have said enough is enough.

“Those of you that know me personally know I am the type of man to say what’s on my mind, regardless of possibly hurting someone’s feelings. I do not — and will not — adhere to this ‘politically correct’ society some Americans want. I always show respect until respect is lost. And [Levine and Wolf] have lost my respect.”

Deja Lynn Alvarez, a local trans advocate, said Cole should resign. “The mere fact that an elected official would go so far to insult and disrespect another public official speaks to the times we live in,” Alvarez told PGN. “The Republican party is no longer the financially conservative party. It’s the party of hate, bigotry and bias. Mr. Cole should resign. If you attack Dr. Levine for her work just because you don’t believe in the work she does, that’s fair game. But attacking her gender identity is equivalent to attacking someone for their race or ethnicity. It should not be tolerated in any political party.” 

Alvarez also said the remaining council members should enact an LGBT-inclusive antibias ordinance with a mechanism for enforcement. “Mr. Cole’s hate speech speaks to the need for that,” she said. 

Julie Chovanes, a trans civil-rights attorney, rebuked Cole. “I have known Dr. Levine for a long time and her performance has been stellar during this crisis,” Chovanes said in an email. “Pennsylvania has suffered far less [from COVID-19] than its neighboring states of New York and New Jersey. Mr. Cole’s transphobia is asinine. He insults someone who is working tirelessly to help secure the health of all Pennsylvania residents — including Mr. Cole.  Sadly, trans people face this kind of nonsense every day.”

According to COVID-19 data from the Center for Disease Control, Pennsylvania has an 81% lower infection rate and a 40% lower death rate than New York.

Chovanes also said Cole should resign. “I think any public official who shows such disregard for professional competence and such bigotry should resign,” Chovanes asserted. “Public officials should be serving all people fairly, not mocking some of us for our differences.”

Mazzoni Center admonished Cole, but stopped short of calling for his resignation. “Cole’s statement was not funny, it was harassment,” Mazzoni said in an email. “He didn’t misspeak. He deliberately chose to deadname and misgender another public official over a policy dispute — a tactical decision to harass and bully her. Harassing a person is wrong, whether they are a public official, a coworker, or a school student. Acts like Cole’s hurt LGBTQ people every single day — in schools, workplaces, and the public square. His embrace of that tactic was wrong, and his refusal to apologize for it is dangerous. Instead of discouraging kids from harassment, he has shown them how to do it. There are so many resources available today that it’s difficult to believe that he doesn’t know better. But if he or anyone else needs a starting place, they might try GLAAD’s Transgender Frequently Asked Questions.

“Cole’s community deserves better, particularly since he is co-chair of the Trafford Borough Council’s Public Safety Committee, with oversight over the police. Many LGBTQ people fear that if they call the police for help, they will suffer harassment or worse. Cole’s trans constituents deserve more from him than taunts and disrespect. He owes an apology to Secretary Levine. But even more, he owes an apology to the people he was elected to serve, especially the folks who are trans.”

The Delta Foundation, a non-profit in western Pennsylvania that advocates for the LGBTQ community, expressed disappointment with Cole. 

“Since the coronavirus pandemic began, Dr. Rachel Levine has offered a calming presence in her daily Pennsylvania Department of Health briefings,” the foundation said in a prepared statement. “It’s disappointing to hear the vitriol that continues to be directed against someone whose top concern is keeping Pennsylvanians healthy.”

Elissa Ridenour, a trans university student and an ambassador for the Pennsylvania Youth Congress, praised Levine.

“Dr. Levine’s focus is clear,” Ridenour said in an email. “She is focused on the health of Pennsylvanians and not worried about hate. There is no need for Dr. Levine to be deadnamed. Deadnaming is a dehumanizing act that can cause serious harm to trans people — especially if it is happening daily. It is appalling that Councilmember Cole would make such rude remarks and then be shocked when he would be held accountable for his cruel statements.

“Dr. Levine has shown what true leadership is, by being the bigger person through bigotry and focusing on her main message of keeping all Pennsylvanians safe. Her way of handling situations against hate has been inspiring to say the least. Dr. Levine has quoted Yoda saying: ‘Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.’ This quote she uses has shown her calming nature throughout this nationwide pandemic and as an exemplary healthcare professional — and is definitely something we need right now from an official. I am proud of her.”

Jason Landau Goodman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Youth Congress, added:
“No bully should ever hold public office. [Cole] must be held accountable for his actions or resign.”

Levine had no comment regarding Cole. Other members of the Trafford Borough Council didn’t return emails seeking comment.