By Kim Strong
York Daily Record
January 20th, 2021
When the news broke Tuesday that Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Rachel Levine had been nominated by Joe Biden to become his assistant secretary for health, Christine McGinn sent her colleague a text message.
“I think it’s amazing,” McGinn wrote to Levine. “Honestly, not amazing. It’s totally expected.”
If confirmed, Levine would become the highest-ranking federal official approved by the U.S. Senate who is openly transgender.
“She’s taken a lot of heat during this difficult year that we’ve been through, and she’s done great,” said McGinn, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon in New Hope, Pennsylvania, specializing in transgender surgery.
“I remember the day that Gov. (Tom) Wolf picked her. I remember hearing it on the news. And what I loved about it and what I hope happens again, they talked about her being transgender for a day, then they moved on,” said McGinn, a former flight surgeon for the Navy who is also transgender. She has known Levine for about a decade.
In 2015, Wolf had chosen Levine, a pediatrician, to become the state’s physician general, promoting her in 2017 to become the state’s secretary of health.
“I think Dr. Rachel Levine is truly an inspiration, especially for the transgender community and especially the younger transgender community,” said Tesla Taliaferro of York.
Four years ago, as Levine was rising in government, Taliaferro moved to Pennsylvania to start a new life in a way that he thought he couldn’t in his own hometown.
What he found here was an unexpected hero in Levine. Taliaferro, who was born and raised as a girl, started his transition to become a man four years ago.
“She lives her life authentically without any apologies,” said Taliaferro, a technical writer and editor for an engineering company. He runs the Rainbow Rose LGBTQIA+ Center in York, Pennsylvania.
Throughout the pandemic, Levine’s public profile rose during daily coronavirus updates with Wolf. As the lines began to be drawn between state residents who accepted the lockdown and those who opposed it, Levine became a target for vitriol.
In July, photos were posted by the Bloomsburg Fair of a fundraiser that parodied Levine. She responded on Twitter: “I have no room in my heart for hatred, and frankly, I do not have time for intolerance.”
“The entire community rejoiced, not just the transgender community,” Taliaferro said of her post. “It said we are above what people say about us.”
Wolf made his own statement on Twitter at the time: “The COVID-19 pandemic has brought hate and transphobia into the spotlight through relentless comments and slurs directed at Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine, who is a highly skilled, valued, and capable member of my administration.”
This is what success among the transgender community looks like: Success begets backlash.
“It’s been awful to watch the slander and hate that’s directed to her. That hate lands right on the hearts and shoulders of the young people I work with,” said Marlene Pray, director and founder of Planned Parenthood’s Rainbow Room in Doylestown, a space for LGBTQ+ youth. “We know it takes a toll on her, and it also takes a toll on all of us, including straight and transgender kiddos. But there’s also the resilience she has.”
“Representation always matters,” said Hil Malatino of inclusivity and diversity in the workplace. He is a transgender assistant professor of women’s, gender and sexual studies and philosophy at Penn State University.
“On the other hand, it opens up that degree of visibility that creates public scrutiny,” he said. The scrutiny can devolve into insults and abuse – bullying. “If you are a high-level political public figure, you have more important things to do than to respond to the transphobic people.”
Dana Rasmussen, a transgender woman, looks to Levine as an example of strength.
“If she can face, survive, and overcome often hateful comments and threats while continuing to serve the people, then I know I can also succeed in my profession,” said Rasmussen, who serves in northwest Pennsylvania on the Transfamily of NWPA board of directors. Her nomination “provides a visible and positive representation of what can be achieved when a transgender person is allowed to freely apply themselves in their professions.”
Of her appointment, Taliaferro said: “The caring and compassionate manner in which she provides leadership speaks strongly to her understanding of the human experience. Her nomination is also exciting for the LGBTQIA+ community and especially the transgender community because of the importance of representation and recognition both for and beyond our identities.”
Adrian Shanker, executive director of the Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center in Allentown, said in a written statement, “Dr. Rachel Levine’s leadership in Harrisburg has saved countless lives from both the opioid epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a dedicated public servant, a public health expert, and a compassionate leader who is well prepared to go to Washington to improve public health for the American people.”
Kim Strong can be reached at [email protected].
Adrian Shanker is an award-winning activist and organizer whose career has centered on advancing progress for the LGBT community. He has worked as an arts fundraiser, labor organizer, marketing manager, and served as President of Equality Pennsylvania for three years before founding Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center in Allentown, PA, where he serves as executive director. An accomplished organizer, Adrian has led numerous successful campaigns to advance LGBT progress through municipal nondiscrimination and relationship recognition laws and laws to protect LGBT youth from conversion therapy. A specialist in LGBT health policy, he has developed leading-edge health promotion campaigns to advance health equity through behavioral, clinical, and policy changes.
Rachel L. Levine, MD, is the secretary of health for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and Professor of Pediatrics and Psychiatry at the Penn State College of Medicine. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine, and the Academy for Eating Disorders. She is a member of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health. She is also a board member and executive committee member of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. Dr. Levine joined Governor Tom Wolf’s administration in January 2015 as the physician general of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and, upon her appointment, became the first transgender person to hold a cabinet position in Pennsylvania. In 2017, she was named the acting secretary of health and in 2018 was confirmed by the Pennsylvania Senate as the Secretary of Health. She leads the LGBTQ Policy Workgroup and advocates for LGBT rights for the Wolf Administration. Dr. Levine is also an accomplished regional and international speaker and author on the opioid crisis, medical marijuana, adolescent medicine, eating disorders, and LGBT medicine. Dr. Levine graduated from Harvard College and the Tulane University School of Medicine. She completed her training in pediatrics and adolescent medicine at the Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York City.