Dr Rachel Levine has been confirmed as assistant secretary for health, becoming the first openly trans federal official approved by the Senate.
The chamber confirmed Levine to the post Wednesday (24 March) in a 52-58 vote split almost completely along party lines.
In the post, she will advise the Public Health Service, a major division of the Department of Health and Human Services, and help craft the nation’s healthcare strategy – which crucially includes the roadmap out of the coronavirus crisis.
Dr Rachel Levine’s Senate confirmation comes after opponents spread vile misinformation and made cruel jabs against president Joe Biden’s nominee, the former Pennsylvania health secretary who led her state through the pandemic with her decades of experience.
In a powerful statement shared to The New York Times, she pledged to “promote policies that advance the health and well-being of all Americans”.
Poignantly, at a time when the rights of trans people – trans youth especially – are being eroded by Republicans, Levine stressed that although she might be the first out trans person to be confirmed by the Senate, “I will not be the last”.
A ‘unified’ America must include trans people, says Rachel Levine
Dr Rachel Levine continued: “As I prepare to take my oath of office and begin serving as assistant secretary for health, I would like to take this opportunity to address members of the LGBT+ community.
“First, thank you. Only through your work and advocacy over many decades is my story possible. I am humbled to be the first transgender individual to serve in a Senate-confirmed position.
“As vice president Harris has said, I recognise that I may be the first, but am heartened by the knowledge that I will not be the last.
“When I assume this position, I will stand on the shoulders of those who came before – people we know throughout history and those whose names we will never know because they were forced to live and work in the shadows.
“In particular, I want to address transgender youth. I know that each and every day you confront many difficult challenges.
“Sadly, some of the challenges you face are from people who would seek to use your identity and circumstance as a weapon. It hurts. I know.
“I cannot promise you that these attacks will immediately cease, but I will do everything I can to support you and advocate for you. President Obama often reminded us that not all progress goes in a straight line.
“What I can tell you is that there is a place for you in America and in our government. Our ‘more perfect union’ includes you, too.”
Dr Rachel Levine is a paediatrician and former physician general who has led Pennsylvania through two crises, opioids and coronavirus. She served as secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Health from 2017 to 2021 where she drew praise for her informative daily briefings and is a professor of paediatrics and psychiatry at the Penn State College of Medicine.
Despite her thumping qualifications, she scraped a narrow majority in the Senate. Two Republicans crossed party lines to vote for Levine, Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski and Maine’s Susan Collins. All Democrats voted in favour.
In contrast, former small-town mayor Pete Buttigieg, a gay man, received a Senate backing of 86-13 for his role as transport secretary.
Senate confirmation ‘marks the return of science’
LGBT+ advocacy groups welcomed Dr Rachel Levine’s confirmation as a tremendous turn in trans representation.
“The Senate’s confirmation of Dr Levine marks the return of science, competence, and empathy to one of the most important institutions in our government and at one of the most critical public health moments in our nation’s history,” Lambda Legal CEO Kevin Jennings said in a press release.
Others reflected on the uphill battle Levine climbed towards her historic confirmation.
Kentucky senator Rand Paul launched a volley of hostile questions at Levine during a Senate hearing, seemingly more concerned about her being trans than her actual qualifications for the job.
Levine refused to be wound up by the Republican, instead responding calmly as she explained the nuances of trans healthcare. Her aplomb earning plaudits from Democrats.
“Through all the transphobic attacks and bigotry that Dr Levine endured during her confirmation process, she persevered, and the work and her determination paid off,” said Equality PAC co-chair Mark Takano and David Cicilline.