A Pennsylvania fair becomes ensnared in online transphobia

A Facebook post said a man in a dunk tank dressed as a woman was actually the state health secretary, who is transgender and leading the state’s coronavirus response.
By Tim Fitzsimons

A charity event in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, became fodder for controversy after a social media post compared a man in a dunk tank — who was wearing a dress, blond wig and glasses — to the state’s health secretary, Dr. Rachel Levine, who is transgender and has been leading the state’s coronavirus response.

“Dr. Levine? Thank you. You were a hit and raised a lot of money for the local fire companies. Wonder why so many were trying to dunk you?” a now-deleted Facebook post, shared by the Bloomsburg Fair Association, stated.

The association hosted the carnival event for firefighters this past weekend, and it also organizes the annual Bloomsburg Fair, the state’s biggest such event (though this year’s, scheduled for September, could be canceled over COVID-19 concerns).

The man in the tank was David Broadt, the fire chief of Main Township. Broadt told The Press Enterprise that he was “going for a Marilyn Monroe look,” all “just in fun.”

“It wasn’t done to disrespect her,” Broadt said of Levine.

At a Tuesday news conference, Bloomsburg Fair Association President Randy Karschner said “we apologize” for the post on his organization’s Facebook page and said that a carnival attendee had remarked that the person in the tank looked like Levine.

“Somebody walked by and said it resembled the doctor and it just went from there,” Karschner said. “It was a good time until it hit social media, and as 20/20 hindsight goes it’s not as clear in front sometimes as it is behind.”

In a statement, Levine’s spokesperson, Nate Wardle, said the secretary “remains laser-focused on protecting the health and well-being of Pennsylvanians as we navigate this ongoing pandemic.”

Wardle shared a statement issued last month by the Pennsylvania Commission on LGBTQ Affairs denouncing the transphobic abuse that has trailed Levine since she became a public face of the fight against the pandemic.

“Week after week, members of the LGBTQ community and thousands of Pennsylvanians have tuned in to be informed by our Health Secretary only to be assaulted by streams of comments and slurs aimed directly at Dr. Levine and indirectly at all transgender Pennsylvanians,” the statement said. “Whether a member of the media is misgendering her or social media comments are lobbed her way, we admire how Dr. Levine has shown poise and the highest degree of professionalism.”

In June, Levine told NBC News that she hoped her public-facing role amid the pandemic would be something that “educates people about LGBTQ individuals and transgender individuals.”

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said Levine is owed an apology for the carnival incident.

“Dr. Levine is an honorable public servant whose tireless work to keep PA safe and healthy has saved countless lives,” he wrote on Twitter Monday. “The members of the Pennsylvania transgender community are our neighbors and friends. Treat them that way.”

Pennsylvania state Rep. Brian Sims, a Democrat from Philadelphia, commended Levine’s pandemic leadership in a series of tweets this week. Sims also said that as an alumnus of Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, he was “disgusted” by the incident in his alma mater’s hometown, which he unequivocally described as “transphobia.”

“Pennsylvania has been blessed with the world-class leadership & public health expertise that our Secretary of Health brings to the table,” Sims wrote. “Her actions have saved tens of thousands of lives and she continues to be a leader during this global pandemic.”

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The Associated Press contributed.