Senate Confirms Levine, Who is Now the Nation’s Highest Ranking Transgender Official

Dr. Rachel Levine

Rachel Levine fist bumps Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., at the end of her confirmation hearing before a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. (Caroline Brehman/Pool via AP)

By Patrick Abdalla

March 24, 2021

Dr. Rachel Levine helped oversee Pennsylvania’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Former Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine has become the first openly transgender person confirmed to a federal administrative position in the nation’s history.

She will be the Assistant Secretary of Health for the US Department of Health and Human Services.

The Senate voted 52-48 to confirm Levine to the post. Republicans Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) joined Democrats in the mostly party-line vote.

Pennsylvania Officials Praise Levine’s Appointment

Several Pennsylvania legislators and officials congratulated Levine on her confirmation Wednesday.

Levine’s Track Record in Pennsylvania

Levine has a track record of bipartisan support for her nominations.

Levine became the Pennsylvania Secretary of Health in 2017, after the majority-GOP Pennsylvania Senate voted 49-1 to approve Levine’s appointment, making her one of the few transgender people serving in elected or appointed positions nationwide.

Two years earlier, the majority-GOP Pennsylvania Senate unanimously confirmed her appointment as the state Physician General.

It was only when she came before the US Senate that Republicans decided to vote against her as a block.

Pennsylvania’s Republican senator, Pat Toomey, was among those who voted against Levine’s confirmation Wednesday.

Toomey blamed Levine and Gov. Tom Wolf for the deaths of nursing home residents since the start of the pandemic.

Levine’s Leadership and Experience

When President Joe Biden nominated Levine for the post, he praised her experience and said she “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.”

Before Levine became Pennsylvania’s physician general, she served as the Vice Chairperson for Clinical Affairs at the Department of Pediatrics at Penn State Hershey Medical Center. While she was there, she started the adolescent medicine division and eating disorders clinic.

A graduate of Harvard and of Tulane Medical School, Levine finished her medical training at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.

She is president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.

She has written in the past on the opioid crisis, medical marijuana, adolescent medicine, eating disorders and LGBTQ medicine.

Confirmation is a Victory for a Community Often Under Attack

Transgender-rights activists have hailed Levine’s appointment as a historic breakthrough. Few trans people have ever held high-level offices at the federal or state level.

However, the confirmation vote came at a challenging moment for the transgender-rights movement as legislatures across the US—primarily those under Republican control—are considering an unprecedented wave of bills targeting trans young people.

One type of bill, introduced in at least 25 states, seeks to ban trans girls and young women from participating in female scholastic sports.

During Levine’s confirmation hearings, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) neglected to ask Levine about her experience managing the pandemic in Pennsylvania; he instead compared transition surgery to female genital mutilation.

Praise for her accomplishments and her handling of the pandemic have coincided with a steady stream of vitriol directed at at her on social media.

As reported 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 group members fueled days of transphobic posts about Levine for her role in statewide social-distancing mandates to stop the spread of COVID-19.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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