Voting mostly along party lines, the U.S. Senate on Wednesday confirmed former Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine as the country’s assistant health secretary. She is the first openly transgender federal official to win Senate confirmation.
The final vote was 52-48. Republican senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine joined all Democrats to support Levine.
Levine had served as Pennsylvania’s top health representative since 2017 and appeared as the public face of the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. She is expected to oversee offices and programs for health and human services throughout the United States
President Joe Biden quoted Levine’s experience when he nominated her in January.
Levine “will provide the stable leadership and expertise we need to get people through this pandemic – regardless of zip code, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability,” Biden said.
Transgender activists have hailed Levine’s appointment as a historic breakthrough. Few transgender people have ever held high-level offices at the federal or state level.
1) Congratulations to Dr. Rachel Levine for blazing a trail!
2) I’m proud of Sec. Buttigieg and Dr. Levine serves the administration. Yet the differences in Senate confirmation (86-13, 52-48) speak of hostility to transgender people. Https://t.co/uM8SS73KGs
– Del Danica Roem (@pwcdanica) March 24, 2021
However, the confirmation meeting came at a challenging moment for the transgender rights movement as lawmakers across the United States – particularly those under Republican control – are considering an unparalleled wave of bills targeting transgender people.
One type of bill, introduced in at least 25 states, aims to ban transgender girls and young women from participating in female scholastic sports.
Such a measure has already been signed into law by the Mississippi government, Tate Reeves, and similar measures have been sent to the governors of Tennessee, Arkansas and South Dakota.
Another set of bills, introduced in at least 17 states, aims to ban or restrict certain types of medical care for transgender youth. None of these measures has yet received final approval.
Issues related to transgender rights are also an important factor in Republican opposition to the proposed Gender Equality Act, which would extend federal civil protection for LGBTQ people throughout the United States. The measure has passed the Democratic-led House but probably needs some GOP votes to prevail in the Senate.
Former Houston Mayor Annise Parker, president of the LGBTQ Victory Institute, referred to this development when she welcomed the Senate vote on Levine.
“At a time when hateful politicians are arming trans-lives for their own perceived political gain, Dr. Levine’s confirmation focuses on the contributions transgender people make to our nation,” said Parker, whose organization recruits and supports LGBTQ political candidates.
Senator Rand Paul, R-Ky., Who voted no, had confronted Levine about medical treatments for transgender youth – including hormone therapy and puberty blockers – during her February 25 confirmation hearing.
“Do you think minors can make such a life-changing decision as changing their gender?” Asked Paul.
Levine replied that transgender medicine “is a very complex and nuanced field with robust research and healthcare standards” and said she would welcome discussing the issues with him.
In the past, Levine has argued that hormone therapy and puberty-blocking drugs can be valuable medical tools to save certain transgender youth from mental distress and possible suicide risk.
The confirmation meeting was attacked by the Conservative Family Research Council, which claimed that Levine, in addition to her stance on transgender medical care, had supported “a variety of proposals for abortion and anti-religious freedoms” while serving as Pennsylvania’s health secretary.
“Levine may be the most extreme radical ever confirmed by the Senate,” said Travis Weber, the council’s vice president of policy and government.
Pediatrician and former Pennsylvania physician Levine was named Pennsylvania health secretary by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf in 2017. She won a confirmation by the Republican majority in the Pennsylvania Senate.
Later, however, Pat Toomey, a Republican in Pennsylvania, voted against Levine’s confirmation on Wednesday.
“In Pennsylvania, the pandemic hit seniors in nursing homes unreasonably hard compared to other states,” Toomey said. “This was due in part to poor decisions and oversight by Dr. Levine and the Wolf administration.”
He also said that an extended lock-in advocated by Levine “was excessive, arbitrary in nature and has led to a slower recovery.”
Levine is a graduate of Harvard and Tulane Medical School, and is president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. She has previously written about the opioid crisis, medical marijuana, adolescent medicine, eating disorders and LGBTQ medicine.
Praise for her performance and her handling of the pandemic has coincided with a steady stream of vitriol directed at her on social media.
As reported on Tuesday by the Associated Press, Levine was among the targets of a private Facebook group called the Pittsburgh Area Police Breakroom whose participants included many current and retired police officers.
Dozens of team members pushed days of transphobic posts about Levine for her role in the state-wide social distancing mandate to stop the spread of COVID-19.
“Someone has to shoot this thing !!” wrote a retired officer.
In January, a Pennsylvania lawmaker shared on Facebook a picture that mocked Levine’s appearance and then offered a general apology.
Secretary of State Jeff Pyle, a Republican, said on Facebook that he “had no idea” that the post mocking Levine “would … be received as badly as it was” but that “tens of thousands of heated emails assured me of it. “