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Texas AG misgenders Assistant Health Secretary Rachel Levine on Twitter

The social media giant said the tweet would remain available, despite violating the platform’s policy on hateful conduct, because it’s “in the public’s interest.”
Rachel Levine, nominated to be an assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services, testifies before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 25, 2021.
Rachel Levine, nominated to be an assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services, testifies before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 25, 2021.Caroline Brehman / Pool via AP file

Some are accusing Twitter of applying its policy on hateful conduct unequally after it allowed a tweet from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton that intentionally misgendered Assistant Health Secretary Rachel Levine to remain on its platform.

On Sunday, USA Today honored Levine, the first openly transgender Senate-confirmed federal official, as one of its “women of the year.”

In a tweet Thursday, Paxton shared an image of Levine from the USA Today feature and called her “a man.” Intentionally misgendering a transgender person, meaning referring to them with the wrong pronouns or by their birth gender, is offensive, and research has shown that it can have negative mental health effects on trans people.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas, Texas, on July 11, 2021.Brandon Bell / Getty Images file

Users reported the tweet, but rather than removing it or suspending Paxton’s account, Twitter flagged the tweet and made it optional for people to view it in their feeds because it said the tweet is in the public’s interest.

In a statement via email, a spokesperson for Twitter said the platform placed a public interest notice on the tweet “as it violates our hateful conduct policy.”

“As is standard with this notice, engagements with the Tweet will be limited,” Twitter said. “People will be able to Quote Tweet the Tweet, but will not be able to Like, Reply or Retweet it.”

At the bottom of Twitter’s statement on Paxton’s tweet, the platform provided a link to a page about “public interest exceptions” to its conduct policies.

“We consider content to be in the public interest if it directly contributes to understanding or discussion of a matter of public concern,” Twitter’s page on “defining the public interest” said. “At present, we limit exceptions to one critical type of public-interest content — Tweets from elected and government officials — given the significant public interest in knowing and being able to discuss their actions and statements. As a result, in rare instances, we may choose to leave up a Tweet from an elected or government official that would otherwise be taken down.” 

But some are criticizing Twitter, saying it applies its policy to elected officials unequally. Last year, Twitter temporarily suspended Indiana Rep. Jim Banks’ account after he misgendered Levine, pending his removal of the tweet. It also suspended Missouri Rep. Vicky Hartzler’s account last month after she tweeted “Women’s Sports are for Women, not men pretending to be women,” in reference to a new ad she released about Lia Thomas, a trans swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania who swam some of the top times in the nation this season and won a NCAA championship on Thursday. (Banks and Hartzler are Republicans.)

Twitter’s policy on public interest exceptions states that in order to qualify, the account in violation must have at least 100,000 followers. Banks’ account currently has about 84,000 followers, and Hartzler’s has about 2,200.

Some users applauded Twitter for covering Paxton’s tweet with a public interest notice.  

But others argued that it should be taken down completely.

Some people said Twitter isn’t enforcing the policy enough because it is allowing accounts that don’t belong to elected officials to misgender Levine. 

A trans activist on Twitter pointed out that the platform allowed a tweet from The Christian Post that misgendered Levine to stay up even though the outlet does not meet its criteria for public-interest exceptions. 

In response to a question regarding why The Christian Post’s tweet did not violate the conduct policy, a spokesperson for Twitter said, “Per our hateful conduct policy, ‘to help our teams understand the context [in which the Tweets are shared], we sometimes need to hear directly from the person being targeted to ensure that we have the information needed prior to taking any enforcement action.’”

At least one national LGBTQ advocacy group has condemned Twitter’s decision. Sarah Kate Ellis, CEO and president of GLAAD, an LGBTQ media advocacy group, said that simply restricting harmful content “is not enough.” 

“Platforming harmful anti-trans rhetoric is not in the public’s interest,” she said in an emailed statement. “Social media companies have a responsibility to remove harmful anti-trans content that violates their own policies. As a four-star admiral and Assistant Health and Human Services Secretary, Dr. Levine is beyond worthy of USA Today’s Women of the Year list, and she, like any human being, is worthy of respect.” 

Ellis added that some politicians see “pushing malicious, anti-trans content on social media as part of their election strategy, even with the full knowledge that such content is violative and likely to be removed from the platforms or even get them suspended,” calling it “absolutely shameful.”  

Paxton has recently doubled down on efforts to target transgender people in Texas, with some advocates calling them politically motivated. 

Last month, he said in a nonbinding legal opinion that providing gender-affirming medical care such as puberty blockers and hormone therapy to minors is considered child abuse under current Texas law. He issued the opinion after the Legislature failed to pass a bill last year that would’ve made such care child abuse. 

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, also a Republican, affirmed the opinion and directed citizens and licensed professionals who work with children to report anyone they think is providing gender-affirming medical care to minors. The state has since opened nine investigations, but a judge issued a temporary injunction against them last week pending the outcome of a lawsuit filed by the ACLU.

Paxton released his opinion a week before he faced a competitive GOP primary election. He will now face a runoff race in May. 

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