Local trans advocates cheer Dr. Rachel Levine’s confirmation

Dr. Rachel Levine was sworn in by HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra. (Photo: Dept. of Health and Human Services).

Local trans advocates are lauding the confirmation of Dr. Rachel Levine as assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. She’s the highest-ranking openly-trans person ever to serve in the federal government. She was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in a 52-48 vote March 24, largely along party lines.

Trans woman Deja Alvarez called Levine’s confirmation “a new day” for the trans community. “To have a trans person appointed to a position that high up, it’s absolutely a new day,” Alvarez told PGN. “There’s no way around that. We saw Sarah McBride elected to the Delaware senate. Now we have Dr. Rachel Levine holding the highest-ranking position [for an openly trans person] in government. This is coming after four years of hate and attacks from the previous administration. Thankfully, a new day is upon us.”

Prior to her nomination, Levine, 63, had been serving as Pennsylvania’s top health official since 2017. She gained prominence as a symbol of Pennsylvania’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. In her new post, she’s expected to oversee HHS offices and programs across the United States.

Alvarez credited Levine for elevating visibility of the trans community. “Every glass ceiling that one of us breaks opens — it opens up for all of us who face barriers, discrimination and prejudice,” Alvarez said.

But Alvarez acknowledged the increased public awareness could result in a backlash. “There were 48 [Senate] votes against [Levine],” Alvarez continued. “That just shows us how much work there is to be done. Yes, this is a great achievement. But there’s still much work to do.”

Alvarez cited Levine’s courage for subjecting herself to anti-trans attacks. “I applaud Dr. Levine for her bravery,” Alvarez added. “When a trans person becomes a public figure it is an absolute act of bravery. The amount of physical, mental and emotional torment that we face on a daily basis is unparalleled. Fifty percent of the country voted for Trump. So that shows us she’s going to face an uphill battle in her new position. She knows the attacks are going to continue and probably get worse. Still, she accepted this appointment. That’s an act of bravery.”

Naiymah Sanchez, another local trans advocate, said Levine’s confirmation helps normalize trans people. “I think the confirmation is impactful because we continue to see anti-trans rhetoric portraying trans folks as ‘the other’ or ‘not normal,’” Sanchez said, in an email. “Dr. Levine’s confirmation makes clear that we are, indeed, no different than our cisgender peers. We are doctors, teachers, lawyers, politicians, and essential workers. At the same time, we are dying while fighting for the simplest of laws that protect us.”

Sanchez called Levine’s confirmation “a reminder to members of our community that you can be and do whatever you set your mind to be and do, if you stay determined to achieve those goals. We must help each other over hurdles. And we must unite our movement to achieve systematic equity.” 

Preston Heldibridle, state policy associate at Pennsylvania Youth Congress, said Levine’s confirmation gives hope for a “brighter future.”

“Dr. Levine is not inspirational simply because of her identity,” Heldibridle said, in an email. “Rather, it is her actions that set her apart. At every level of her career, Dr. Levine has always gone above and beyond to uplift trans youth in her work. She has worked not only for us — but directly with us — to prevent discrimination in healthcare and insurance, and to reduce obstacles in accessing medical treatment or correcting official documents. We will miss her leadership here in Pennsylvania. However, the fact that we have gained a proven leader at the federal level who knows trans youth as valuable members of our society — and who I trust from experience will work for us and every other American in her new position — gives me hope for a brighter future.”

Julie Chovanes, a local trans attorney, said Levine’s confirmation “will be helpful moving forward.”

“I’ve known Rachel since we first transitioned about the same time years ago,” Chovanes said, in an email. “I have since worked against her, suing her and the Commonwealth to provide Medicaid to trans people and to provide trans people with gender accurate birth certificates. We won both cases and Rachel couldn’t have been nicer during the process and in understanding our people needed the relief I sought. Congratulations to her. I wish her all the luck in the world. And we are so fortunate to have her!”

Adrian Shanker, executive director of Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center, called Levine’s confirmation a “pivotal moment” in U.S. history. “The historic, bipartisan confirmation of Dr. Rachel Levine by the U.S. Senate represents a pivotal moment in American history and is another glass ceiling shattered for physical representation of transgender people in government,” Shanker said, in a statement. “Dr. Levine continues to make history. And we are so proud to see her do it! Now she can get to work advancing the public health of the American people.”

Stephen T. Kulp, chair of the Philadelphia LGBTQ Bar Association, said the group “join[s] LGBTQ+ folks across the country in giving Dr. Levine a standing ovation for this hard-earned and well-deserved achievement and deeply thank[s] Dr. Levine for her leadership, advocacy and dedication to the LGBTQ+ community — especially in LGBTQ+ health and equity issues — but also in shattering glass ceilings for the transgender community and paving the way for future LGBTQ+ leadership.”

Christian Fuscarino, executive director of Garden State Equality, said: “Coming from a state [New Jersey] with a governor who prioritizes LGBTQ inclusion in his cabinet, we know firsthand how the nation will benefit from having a federal government that better reflects the communities it serves.”