On Tuesday, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden announced that he is nominating Dr. Rachel Levine to be assistant secretary for health in the department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Levine, who has been leading Pennsylvania’s work to combat COVID-19, would become the first openly transgender federal officer to win a Senate confirmation. This ultimately underlines Biden’s promise to address the severe health disparities that transgender people in America face.
Dr. Levine graduated from Tulane University School of Medicine. Prior to her work to fight COVID-19, she also developed expertise in the opioid crisis, medical marijuana, eating disorders while continuing to practice LGBTQ+ and queer-affirming health care. In 2015, she won the state Senate confirmation in Pennsylvania and became the state’s physician general. She also works as a professor at Penn State’s College of Medicine and serves as the president of ASTHO (Association of State and Territorial Health Official).
In a recent interview, Dr. Levine discussed her thoughts on nationwide COVID-19 vaccine distribution. “Pharmacies will be very important and necessary, but not sufficient. It's not the vaccine that's the issue. It's vaccination. We have to get them administered to people. We need to get the vaccines into arms," she said. She's currently poised to join Biden's HHS secretary nominee Xavier Becerra, a Latinx politician, and Jeff Zients, who was nominated as coronavirus response coordinator. Along with these picks, Dr. Anthony Fauci — whose work has been irreplaceable during the pandemic so far — will work closely with the new administration.
But Dr. Levine is not only one of the most professionally qualified officials that Biden has chosen thus far — she is also bringing representation to trans women in health care in America, which will only benefit a trans community that has faced massive discrimination under four years of President Trump. According to GLAAD, the Trump administration has waged 181 attacks on LGBTQ+ people through policies since 2017 — including the introduction of a rule barring health care access for transgender people, and the infamous trans military ban.
Dr. Levine has not been exempt from enduring transphobia while working as a health care professional, either. Due to her high-profile position leading Pennsylvania’s pandemic response, she has frequently faced targeted anti-transgender harassment and abuse online. In July of 2020, she took a stance against the transphobia she was facing online: "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 suffer directly from these current demonstrations of harassment," she said during a conference, as well as on her Twitter. "Your actions perpetuate the spirit of intolerance and discrimination against LGBTQ individuals, and specifically transgender individuals … To perpetrators of these actions, if your apologies are sincere, then I accept them. But an apology is the beginning, not the end, of the conversation.”
Now, in this higher-profile milestone role, the Biden administration must be prepared to defend her from the same transphobia and abuse — on a national scale. "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. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris touted that she is "a remarkable public servant with the knowledge and experience to help us contain this pandemic, and protect and improve the health and well-being of the American people."
Dr. Levine’s appointment sends a clear message that the Biden administration intends to reverse much — if not all — of the systemic harm that’s been imposed on LGBTQ+ people under the Trump administration. "I have no room in my heart for hatred and frankly, I do not have time for intolerance. My heart is full with a burning desire to help people," she said.