Dr. Rachel Levine yesterday became the first openly transgender person to be confirmed by the Senate and the country’s highest-ranking transgender official. Levine, who has two grown children, will be the assistant secretary for health in the Department of Health and Human Services.
Dr. Levine had been secretary of health for Pennsylvania and led the state’s public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In a statement released to the New York Times, Levine said she looked forward to “promot[ing] policies that advance the health and wellbeing of all Americans”—but she also thanked the LGBTQ community, saying, “Only through your work and advocacy over many decades is my story possible.” She noted, “I will stand on the shoulders of those who came before—people we know throughout history and those whose names we will never know because they were forced to live and work in the shadows.” She looked ahead as well as back, however, observing that “As Vice President Harris said [in her election speech] I recognize that I may be the first, but am heartened by the knowledge that I will not be the last.”
Poignantly, too, she addressed transgender youth, saying:
I know that each and every day you confront many difficult challenges. Sadly, some of the challenges you face are from people who would seek to use your identity and circumstance as a weapon. It hurts. I know. I cannot promise you that these attacks will immediately cease, but I will do everything I can to support you and advocate for you. President Obama often reminded us that not all progress goes in a straight line. What I can tell you is that there is a place for you in America and in our government. Our ‘more perfect union’ includes you, too.
There are a record number of anti-transgender bills in state legislatures this year, including many that target trans youth.
Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said in a statement that Levine’s confirmation “shows how far our country has come in recognizing that being transgender has nothing to do with a person’s abilities…. Our nation will be stronger for having someone of her caliber helping to lead our national health agenda.” He added, “As a transgender person, I am encouraged by her success and proud to see so many transgender people stepping up to dedicate their experience and expertise to public service. I look forward to the day when every young person can grow up knowing that every path is open to them and that they will not be held back or limited simply because of who they are.”
Among her many accomplishments, Levine was the President of ASTHO, the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, and is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine, and the Academy for Eating Disorders. She joined Governor Tom Wolf’s administration in January 2015 as the physician general of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and served from 2015 to 2017. She was named acting secretary of health for the state in July 2017 and confirmed as secretary of health in March 2018. Her previous posts included vice-chair for clinical affairs for the Department of Pediatrics and chief of the Division of Adolescent Medicine and Eating Disorders at the Penn State Hershey Medical Center.
Dr. Levine is also an accomplished regional and international speaker, and author on the opioid crisis, medical marijuana, adolescent medicine, eating disorders, and LGBTQ+ medicine. She graduated from Harvard College and the Tulane University School of Medicine, completing her training in Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York City. She’s spoken often to LGBTQ groups, including a keynote address at Philadelphia Family Pride’s 6th Annual Family Matters Conference for LGBTQ parented-families in 2015.
(And no, she’s not the first openly LGBTQ parent to receive Senate confirmation. I believe that honor goes to Roberta Achtenberg, who was confirmed as assistant secretary for the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity after being nominated by President Bill Clinton in 1993, and was also one of the co-founders of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. After Achtenberg, the next was James Hormel, another Clinton nominee, who served as the United States Ambassador to Luxembourg after confirmation in 1999. That’s not to take anything away from Levine’s achievement, but as she herself noted, she’s standing on the shoulders of others even as she’s a welcome “first” in her own right.)
Congratulations, Dr. Levine!