Perhaps realizing how one of the most important issues Biden address once in office is the coronavirus, the president-elect has already taken steps to surround himself with well respect public health officials. With that in mind, he also has to make decision on how to fill the Surgeon General role with someone who will become the nation’s preeminent public health official and lead the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. One of the top contenders for the position is a transgender woman named Dr. Rachel Levine.
Dr. Levine currently serves as the Secretary of Health in Pennsylvania and has been largely praised for her efforts in that role. As we’re seeing a rise in cases all across the country, for instance, Dr. Levine expanded the state’s mask order this week and is working to ensure hospitals have enough resources to deal with the increase number of cases. Medical professionals and elected officials were quick to respond positively to this announcement.
It’s actions like these that have caused someone in a relatively obscure position during non-pandemic times to receive a significant amount of attention and praise. She was even the subject of a recent article in the Philadelphia Magazine that praised her efforts and spoke about the respect she’s received from the community. The headline made it perfectly clear what folks thought of her by saying “Rachel Levine is saving Pennsylvania and become an accidental icon in the process.”
“Here, it’s Levine, who has been praised for her COVID-19 response — for many of us, a steady, composed, data-driven approach in a time when others have peddled panic (and false hope), placed blame and questioned science,” the article said. “There are Rachel Levine fan-club buttons. Someone started a Twitter hashtag, #Respect4Rachel, to push back on bigotry directed toward her. A Facebook fan page, “Dr. Rachel Levine-We Love You,” has 6,460 followers. The comments there are a steady stream of gratitude, describing her in words typically reserved for Jesus.”
But it’s not just her knowledge of public health issues that’s received attention. On top of being a well respected public health expert, the doctor has been a prime example of how transgender people are just like everyone else and can do fantastic work for the community. After right wing activists tried to spread bigotry and mock Dr. Levine for being trans, for example, she didn’t lose her cool or lose sight of the bigger picture. Instead, she used part of one of her briefings to address the attacks in a responsible way.
“I want to emphasize that while these individuals may think that they are only expressing their displeasure with me, they are in fact hurting the thousands of LGBTQ Pennsylvanians who suffered directly from these current demonstrations of harassment,” she said according to LGBTQ Nation. “Your actions perpetuate the spirit of intolerance and discrimination against LGBTQ individuals and specifically transgender individuals.”
“I think that we need to continue to educate people about LGBTQ individuals,” Dr. Levine added. “We are just here, we’re part of the community. We are doctors, we are nurses, we are teachers. We work in restaurants. We work everywhere, and it’s our children. So I think if an apology means, ‘Okay, I apologize. This is all done,’ then it is insufficient.”
Having Dr. Levine receive praise for her response to the pandemic while also combating the divisiveness and hatred spewed by anti-LGBTQ people might seem like something small, but it can have a lasting impact on people coming from a traditionally marginalized community.
Studies have shown that about 12 percent of today’s youth identify as transgender or gender non-confirming. That’s about 1 in 8 people. 90% of people in this group have been verbally harassed, 50% have been physically harassed, and 25% have been physically assaulted. This is in large part because many school systems and workplaces have no protections for LGBTQ students that prevent them from discrimination or harassment.
While young people are dealing with the actual fear that goes along with the the verbal and physical assaults, they also often feel isolated and alone. This is because they often aren’t represented in school curriculum or public media. There aren’t many transgender characters in TV shows, news coverage of the contribution trans people make to society, or discussion of their lives in literature or educational curriculum (such as sex ed, biology, or history).
Being able to see themselves represented in society’s culture will not only have direct benefits towards transgender individuals, but studies have proven that representation will actually reduce transphobia among the general population.
This makes sense if you simply look back on the discussion around same-sex marriage. There used to be laws against same-sex couples from even dating one another, but that’s changed over time as public opinion on gay rights has evolved. Even arch conservatives like Dick Cheney have come around on the issue after a family member came out, after all, and a conservative Supreme Court justice was the one who wrote the ruling declaring bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.
If Dr. Levine were to become the nation’s next Surgeon General, her history of action as Secretary of Health shows she would bring a tremendous amount of experience and expertise to the position. But her appointment could also go a long way in sending a message of promoting equality. And given Biden’s personal connections to the transgender community (he’s been close to state-senator-elect Sarah McBride and even wrote the forward to her book) and that he mentioned trans equality in his victory speech, I imagine this isn’t lost on the president-elect.