President Joe Biden made history Jan. 19 when he announced the nomination of Dr. Rachel Levine to be his assistant health secretary — if approved, she would become the first openly transgender federal official confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
The choice of Levine, a pediatrician and most recently Pennsylvania's secretary of health who earned high marks for her role in leading the state's coronavirus response, was celebrated by a number of health groups, elected officials and LGBTQ advocacy organizations. However, some prominent figures on the right responded to the news by launching transphobic attacks against her
Most notably, a Republican lawmaker from Pennsylvania, state Rep. Jeff Pyle, authored a Facebook post mocking Levine’s appearance. The post drew a swift backlash, with some people responding to his post with calls for him to resign. The Pennsylvania General Assembly’s LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus called on the House Republican Caucus and the speaker of the Pennsylvania House to reprimand Pyle for his post, which the Equality Caucus called “discriminatory and dangerous.”
Pyle issued a general apology Saturday, posted to his now deactivated Facebook page, saying he “had no idea” the post “would be ... received as poorly as it was” but that “tens of thousands of heated emails assured me it was,” The Associated Press reported. He did not specifically apologize to Levine, however, or to the transgender community as a whole, but rather “to all affected.”
Gillian Branstetter, a transgender advocate and the media manager for the National Women’s Law Center, tweeted a screenshot of Pyle’s post alongside a screenshot of a tweet by Jenna Ellis — a member of former President Donald Trump’s legal team who had previously misgendered Levine — chiming in on whether conservative women are “hotter” than their more liberal counterparts.
In Branstetter’s tweet, she drew a direct correlation between Pyle’s post and remarks by Ellis and other conservatives about the appearance of women in politics: “If you think these insults are driven by different impulses I have some depressing news for you,” she wrote.
Branstetter told NBC News that the two juxtaposed examples “should be a teaching moment for reporters and allies to understand that the misogyny that goes after a trans woman for how she performs her femininity is the exact same misogyny that limits a cisgender woman.”
Deadnaming, misgendering and misinformation
The attacks on Levine didn’t stop at insults about her appearance.
The far-right media outlet Breitbart deadnamed and misgendered Levine throughout an article announcing her nomination to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (deadnaming refers to the usage of a transgender person’s former name). In perhaps an attempt at irony, the article made several references to Levine’s past appeals to have people stop misgendering her and end their “intolerance and discrimination against LGBTQ individuals and specifically transgender individuals.”
Ben Shapiro, podcaster and former editor at the conservative publication The Daily Wire, also misgendered Levine, calling her “a biological man who believes he is a woman” in a Jan. 19 tweet. Shapiro’s tweet also misrepresented Levine’s actions as Pennsylvania’s top health official.
Both Shapiro and Daily Wire writer Matt Walsh tweeted false claims about Levine taking her mother out of a nursing home while patients with Covid-19 were being sent in, with Walsh adding that Levine should “be in prison, not a political administration.”
Levine has responded to this criticism by noting her mother was not in a nursing home, but rather a personal care home, which falls under the jurisdiction of the state Department of Human Services, a separate entity from the agency she led up until last week. She also said her mother made the choice to leave the facility last spring, which reportedly included residents who tested positive for the virus, calling her “very intelligent and more than competent to make her own decisions.”
Levine has also said the state’s policy to return residents to their nursing homes after they had been treated for Covid-19 and were stable was based on recommendations issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Fox News host Tucker Carlson also criticized Levine during his Jan. 19 broadcast, over residents being returned to nursing homes after being treated for Covid-19 and, like Shapiro and Walsh, alleged she had “moved her 95-year-old mother out of a nursing home,” and called Levine “completely incompetent.”
Carlson additionally falsely referred to Levine’s gender as “sexual orientation or sex life or whatever, her personal life,” and, as conservative media watchdog Media Matters noted, argued the Biden administration nominated her in “an effort to see how big a middle finger can we wag in the face of the country.”
“It’s really rich to see right-wing media figures pretend they’re so concerned with Dr. Levine’s record on Covid,” Brennan Suen, Media Matters’ LGBTQ program director, said. “These figures are acting like they’re taking Covid so seriously all of a sudden so they can attack Dr. Levine; at the same time, they’re relentlessly spreading misinformation about Covid, and about masks, and about gatherings.”
According to a study published by Media Matters over the summer, Fox News repeated misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic 253 times in just five days, from July 6 through July 10.
“It goes to show you that they don’t really care about people’s records. They don’t care about Dr. Levine’s record on managing the crisis, which, according to most indicators, seems to be exemplary,” Suen added.
‘Barrier-breaker’ and a ‘source of confidence’
While both Branstetter and Suen have found the response from transphobic critics distressing, they also stressed the importance of Levine’s nomination beyond public health.
“The LGBTQ community and advocates are really thrilled about this nomination,” Suen said. “She is an extremely qualified person. She is not just a barrier-breaker, but she's the right person for the job, with the right record at the right moment.”
Branstetter said seeing the transphobic rhetoric lobbed at Levine could remind trans youth of the “harassment that they've personally faced that may force them back further into the closet.”
“The important thing to note, of course, is that for every nasty comment that somebody has about Dr. Levine, there are countless people who are ready to applaud her and stand by her,” she said.
Branstetter also shared that Levine was a source of inspiration for her during a pivotal time in her own life, when Branstetter covered Levine while working as a health care reporter in Pennsylvania.
“I was very much still in a phase with my own transitioning and coming out, of wondering how people were reacting to it, or second-guessing what people were saying behind closed doors about me,” she recalled. “Seeing her performing her job with dignity and professionalism, and all the expertise she brings to it, was always encouraging, was always a source of confidence — and certainly even more so now that she could stand to be the first trans person in a Senate-confirmed position in the government.”