By Ethan Jiang
Last week, a confirmation hearing for one of the Biden Administration’s lesser-known nominees erupted into fireworks.
In the widely publicized incident, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) aggressively questioned Dr. Rachel Levine, a Biden pick for the Department of Health and Human Services, about the impact of hormone blockers, gender-affirming hormones, and “genital mutilation” on transgender youth. Paul’s grilling was prompted not only by Levine’s role in public health, but also by her own personal identity: Levine is openly transgender.
Paul’s comments came at a particularly tense time on Capitol Hill. After Rep. Marie Newman (D-IL) hung a transgender pride flag outside of her office, her neighbor Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) responded with a sign reading: “There are two genders: MALE & FEMALE… Trust the Science!”
More broadly, Levine’s confirmation comes at a historic time for LGBTQ individuals in government. Last year, Richard Grenell became the first openly gay person to serve as Director of National Intelligence and Pete Buttigieg was recently confirmed as Secretary of Transportation. Levine, meanwhile, will become the highest ranking trans official in American government and the first trans person to be confirmed by the Senate.
However, the controversy over Sen. Paul’s remarks and the historical context of her confirmation should not overshadow Dr. Levine’s own work in the field of public health.
Levine brings a storied resume and hands-on experience to her role as Assistant Secretary of Health, where she’ll be tasked with implementing President Biden’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and, more broadly, leading his public health initiatives. A graduate of both Harvard College and the Tulane University Medical School, she previously taught pediatrics at the Penn State College of Medicine. Prior to her nomination in January, Levine served as the Secretary of Health under Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf and is also president-elect of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.
Levine was respected on both sides of the aisle in the Keystone State, and she earned bipartisan praise for her action on COVID-19 specifically. During the early months of the pandemic, she held daily press briefings and established an Emergency Operations Center to distribute resources to hospitals and clinics.
As Dr. Levine herself put it in an interview last year with Advocate Magazine: “I want to be judged upon my work in medicine and in public health… It doesn’t make any difference what someone’s gender identity or sexual orientation is. We’re really all in this together.”
With Levine’s expertise in the fields of pandemic response and public health, Biden’s health department has a valuable ally in the fight against COVID-19.