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'LGBTQ people are here': Pennsylvania's transgender health secretary on visibility

As Pennsylvania's health secretary, Dr. Rachel Levine helps residents stay safe from COVID-19 while increasing visibility of LGBTQ people.
Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine, meets with reporters at The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) headquarters in Harrisburg, Pa., on May 29, 2020.
Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine, meets with reporters at The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) headquarters in Harrisburg, Pa., on May 29, 2020.Joe Hermitt / The Patriot-News via AP file

The coronavirus epidemic has cast a spotlight on Pennsylvania's secretary of health, Dr. Rachel Levine. During her frequent press briefings, the former educator at Penn State Hershey Medical Center explains complex scientific information in a user-friendly way. Her calm presence has quelled Pennsylvania residents, while her mere presence in the media has instilled hope for the LGBTQ community.

“As an openly transgender woman and a proud member of our community, I hopefully educate people that LGBTQ people are here. We're part of the community and we really try to work towards the common good," Levine told TODAY.

As one of only a handful of public officials who are openly transgender, her heightened visibility during the epidemic provides Levine with a chance to increase others' understanding about transgender people and the LGBTQ community.

When she transitioned about 10 years ago, she often spoke with colleagues and medical students about issues facing LGBTQ people. She also served as a facilitator for the LGBTQ student group and started a faculty group.

“I used that as another opportunity for advocacy within the medical center,” Levine said. “The goal is to ultimately create an environment for differences, including diversity from a LBGTQ perspective.”

She suspects that many of the people targeting her with hateful rhetoric do so because they’re scared. Some people have never met any LGBTQ people or understand what members of the community are really like. She hopes by having such a visible role, people will feel more open and welcoming to LGBTQ people in their lives.

“I have jokingly, but somewhat seriously, quoted Yoda in ‘Star Wars’: ‘Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering,’” she said. “People fear what they don't understand. If something is completely new to them it's beyond their experience, many react with fear.”

She also says that feeling panicked, worried or afraid contributes to the actions of those who protest or reject statewide public health mandates in place to slow the spread of coronavirus.

“There is a lot of fear of the unknown in regard to COVID-19, which does lead to some of the very negative responses and reactions that people have,” she explained. “(As a clinician) I would work with patients and families and try to get past the fear and educate them on motivating change. I take that experience as a clinician and an educator as I talked with the public.”

For as much criticism as she receives, Levine hears as much praise, especially from people in the LGBTQ community.

“I have received numerous positive messages — both emails and cards that people have sent — both from the general public about my work to try to protect the public health in the face of COVID-19, but also from the LGBTQ population,” Levine said. “I find that very gratifying. It’s just wonderful the positive responses that I have received.”

Levine says she wants to offer people hope and tools to make smart decisions.

“I try to the best of my ability to empower people to make the right choices. I talk about it endlessly for people to wear a mask when they're indoors or outdoors, to social distance, to wash their hands,” Levine said. “It’s critical to give people hope. We will get through this. We will. It's going to take time.”

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