Biden Taps Trans Health Leader Rachel Levine for HHS Role

Dr. Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania's health secretary, joins the Biden administration.
Reuters/ Daniel Shanken

Pennsylvania’s out transgender health secretary, Rachel Levine, has been nominated by the Biden administration to serve as assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Pending Senate confirmation, Levine is slated to make history as the first openly transgender federal official in the US.

As a top health official in Pennsylvania Levine has spearheaded the state’s public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf appointed her as secretary of health after she previously served as the state’s physician general.

Levine is set to serve under incoming HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, whose position also must be confirmed by the Senate. The officials will be tasked with leading an agency that became a key tool in the Trump administration’s broad assault on queer rights — especially trans rights. HHS unraveled trans health protections implemented under Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, which banned discrimination in healthcare, and in 2017 ordered the removal of condoms from a fact sheet intended to teach women and girls about safe sex and HIV/AIDS prevention.

President-elect Joe Biden described Levine as a “deeply qualified” choice to help lead the administration’s health efforts.

“Dr. Rachel Levine 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 — and meet the public health needs of our country in this critical moment and beyond,” Biden said in a written statement.

As physician general, Levine sought to combat Pennsylvania’s opioid crisis by developing opioid prescription guidelines for doctors and signing an order permitting cops to carry Naloxone, an overdose reversal drug.

Levine is a graduate of Harvard College and the Tulane University School of Medicine. Levine completed her training in pediatrics and adolescent medicine at New York City’s Mount Sinai Medical Center, which is among the leading facilities in LGBTQ health. Levine’s research covers wide-ranging topics like the opioid crisis, medical marijuana, adolescent medicine, eating disorders, and LGBTQ medicine.

Several queer groups applauded Biden’s selection, including the National LGBTQ Task Force.

“Dr. Levine is imminently qualified to serve as assistant secretary at Health and Human Services,” Rhea Carey, executive director of the group, said in a written statement. “Her work in Pennsylvania was exemplary and impactful to the health of all Pennsylvanians. When the National LGBTQ Task Force praised the nomination of Pete Buttigieg as transportation secretary, we said it should the ’the first of many firsts,’ and this is exactly what we meant.”

Carey continued, “We are thrilled that Dr. Levine has been nominated, especially at HHS, where the LGBTQ community has been under serious attack by the outgoing administration. She has served Pennsylvania well and when the Senate confirms her, she will serve the country well, attending to the health needs of all Americans.”

Although widely respected by colleagues and researchers alike, Levine has been targeted by anti-LGBTQ harassment. Last May, a reporter from a Pittsburgh radio station repeatedly misgendered Levine during a daily coronavirus briefing, according to PennLive. This incident was one of many attacks on the official’s gender. That summer, she responded to her harassers.

“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,” said Levine, according to PennLive. “Your actions perpetuate the spirit of intolerance and discrimination against LGBTQ individuals, and specifically transgender individuals.”

Levine is the latest LGBTQ politician to join the ranks of the Biden administration including Gautam Raghavan, an out gay Indian American heading the Office of Presidential Personnel, and US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

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