This week, the Biden administration made history by appointing Dr Rachel Levine as the head of the commissioned body of the United States public health service. Levine is a transgender woman; the post comes with a uniform, four stars and a somewhat unexpected title: Admiral. The appointment makes her the first woman to lead a uniformed service branch and confirms her place as an LGBTQ pioneer. The move was quickly greeted with transphobic remarks from conservatives, including Tucker Carlson of Fox News, and GOP representatives Jim Banks of Indiana and Lauren Boebert of Colorado.
Sadly, such attacks are nothing new to Levine, a trained pediatrician who became Pennsylvania’s health secretary in 2018. While this appointment was groundbreaking, it wasn’t until COVID-19 hit and Levine has played a leading role in the response that she has truly become a statewide number and, inevitably, a target for fanatic attacks.
In an appearance at the start of the pandemic, a Pittsburgh talk radio host repeatedly called Levine “sir” on the air, sparking protests and forcing the mayor to cancel a scheduled interview on the station. In June 2020, a locally elected official resigned after attacking Levine at a public meeting as “a guy dressed like a woman.” The following month, a summer town fair featured a dunk tank with a volunteer firefighter dressed to mock Levine.
Levine quickly took a moment at the start of one of his regular COVID press conferences to address the attacks. “While these people may think that they are only expressing their displeasure with me, they are actually hurting thousands of LGBTQ Pennsylvanians,” Levine said. “I don’t have room in my heart for hate and frankly I don’t have time for intolerance.”
Even though she was just an unelected state official at the time, Levine’s growing profile and gender identity made her a national target for right-wing attacks on public health measures. In August 2020, Trump campaign lawyer Jenna Ellis joined her, manhandling Levine in a tweet attacking his handling of the coronavirus response.
In Pennsylvania, as the pandemic progressed, the most explicit attacks on Levine seemed to be fading, as many of the people who made them were convicted or suffered consequences. But this week, Levine’s bigger new job is attracting new, bigger fanatics, like Boebert, Davis and Carlson, who compared her to a horse in a rant on her Thursday night show.
After the dunk tank incident, Tom Wolf, Democratic Governor of Pennsylvania, took Twitter to condemn it and encourage others to “speak out against hateful comments and acts, including transphobia, when you see them”. This is never bad advice, especially as prominent conservative figures rush to join the hate.