Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 response has been led by the state’s transgender Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine, but her diligent effort to keep Pennsylvanians safe has not insulated her from multiple incidents of transphobic harassment. She talked with LGBTQ Nation about managing a pandemic while facing personal attacks.
In July, a Pennsylvania tavern apologized for a transphobic menu item designed to taunt Dr. Levine. And around the same time, a popular Pennsylvania fair, the Bloomsburg Fair, used a Dr. Levine “impersonator” (which was a man in a wig and a dress) in their dunk tank and published a mocking Facebook post about it.
Leaders of both the fair and tavern apologized, but Dr. Levine still felt it was important to address the transphobia directly at one of her daily briefings:
“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 during her July 28 briefing. “Your actions perpetuate the spirit of intolerance and discrimination against LGBTQ individuals and specifically transgender individuals.”
She went on to address the continued suffering of LGBTQ people, adding, “Frankly, I do not have time for intolerance. My heart is full with a burning desire to help people. And my time is full with working toward protecting the public health.”
She accepted the apologies, she said, if they were sincere but also emphasized that an apology is the beginning of the conversation and not the end.
Dr. Levine, who in 2015 was confirmed unanimously by a Republican-controlled Pennsylvania Senate, spoke with LGBTQ Nation on what she believes needs to follow.
“I think that we need to continue to educate people about LGBTQ individuals,” she said. “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.”
“We need people to continue to work on changing that harassment and discrimination that LGBTQ individuals face, and one way to do that is through education and advocacy. So I think if someone apologizes, it is incumbent upon them to advocate for the LGBTQ community.”
Dr. Levine won’t let discrimination distract her, though, and she has repeatedly emphasized that she will remain “laser focused” on the public health crisis.
Throughout the past several months, those who support Dr. Levine’s work have praised her for her calm, measured, and data-driven response to COVID-19. Some have gone so far as to call her a heroine of the pandemic.
“That’s very, very flattering,” she said. “It is really the honor of my life to be the Secretary of Health for Governor [Tom] Wolf and to be working with many other people, it’s a team in terms of leading the response for COVID-19.”
Still, Dr. Levine added, she doesn’t see herself as a hero.
“For me, the heroes are the frontline healthcare workers, to me the heroes are those working in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. It’s the EMTs and the police, the first responders, the fire department. It is physicians and nurses and so many other medical professionals in emergency departments and on the wards in the ICU.”
She is focused on helping all vulnerable communities that have been adversely affected by the pandemic, which includes LGBTQ people. In fact, said Dr. Levine, Pennsylvania is the first state to begin collecting sexual orientation and gender identity (or SOGI) data as part of COVID-19 testing.
“I can’t say it’s super successful yet, but we have SOGI questions on our data forms when we get lab results,” said Dr. Levine. “Because better data means our response is more data driven and effective.”
One of Dr. Levine’s biggest worries right now, she said, is that people have politicized public health.
“I am very concerned that the public health response to COVID-19 has become politicized,” she said. “Wearing a mask is not a political issue or a partisan issue. It’s just a public health issue, and study after study has shown that wearing a mask when you’re in public can help prevent the spread of COVID-19, that social distancing can prevent the spread of COVID-19, using hand sanitizer and washing your hands can prevent the spread of this very contagious virus.”
“None of this is political, none of this should be partisan.”
“I do not view wearing a mask as a civil liberties issue,” she said. “It’s a public health issue and with our civil liberties come a responsibility to the common good.”
She encouraged people to seek out reputable sources, like the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s website, to get accurate information on staying safe. Do not relay on social media, she warned.
While there is a long way to go, Levine said she absolutely believes there is reason to have hope.
“We will get through this,” she said. “This global pandemic has taught how interconnected we all are, and I think as we pull together in Pennsylvania, as we pull together in the nation and globally pull together, we will overcome COVID-19… I think we will learn lessons from this global pandemic that will help us in the future, and we will get through this together.”