Dr Rachel Levine on How to Support Transgender People
Dr. Rachel Levine made history on March 24 when she was confirmed by the Senate in a bipartisan vote for Assistant Secretary of Health (ASH). She is the first and only openly transgender person to hold a position requiring Senate confirmation. Prior to becoming ASH, she was a general practitioner in Pennsylvania from 2015 to 2017, and then secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Health from 2017 to 2021.
After her confirmation, Levine released a statement in which she spoke directly to the LGBTQ community: “First of all, thank you. It is only through your work and advocacy over many decades that my story is possible. I am honored to be the first transgender person to serve in a Senate Confirmed Position, “she said. “When I assume this position, I will stand on the shoulders of those who came before me–people we know throughout history and people whose names we will never know because they were forced to live and work in the shadows. “
Men’s health spoke to Levine ahead of Pride’s first month under President Joe Biden, and amid ongoing pressure for discriminatory anti-trans legislation in various parts of the country. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
It is the first month of pride under the new administration. What will it look like?
Rachel Levine: I think the future looks brighter than ever right now. As we enter Pride Month, we strive to advocate and advance policies not only within the Department of Health and Social Services, but across government that ensure fairness and health equality for all, and that includes us in the LGBTQ community. There are a lot of systemic changes that we need to make. There were a lot of difficult things about the previous administration that we need to work on and change. But it is essential that we have a president who supports our community.
When [President Biden] said in his joint address to Congress: “To all transgender Americans watching at home – especially young people, who are so brave – I want you to know that your president is supporting you” – I mean, that doesn’t has never been said before. . So it’s an extremely exciting time, and it’s exciting for me. I am the Assistant Secretary for Health at the Department of Health and Social Services. I am honored to have been nominated by President Biden to have been confirmed in a bipartisan vote by the Senate. I know what this symbolizes for LGBTQ people and particularly for the transgender community, and it humiliates me. The vice president said, “Even though I’m the first woman in this office, I won’t be the last” – and that’s how I feel, too. There will be other Senate confirmed trans people after me, and it’s great to lead the way.
What can allies do to better support the trans community?
I think trans rights are human rights. It is important for everyone, all of our allies, to recognize this and support the trans community. And it’s essential to advocate locally – within a community, a school district, a business – to make sure they have non-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation and gender. Pennsylvania, where I’m from, is actually the only state in the Northeast that doesn’t have a statewide non-discrimination policy, and that’s not acceptable. Then, of course, a person can add gender pronouns to their email signature or virtual meeting rooms, which shows people that they are aware of these gender identity issues.
How can other cisgender members of the LGBTQ community step in to support their trans siblings?
What COVID-19 has taught us is that we are all interconnected. And I think that’s true for the LGBTQ community. We must support each other to build a better future for all of us. I think we need to educate ourselves about others. You know, it’s not just the LGBTQ community, it’s LGBTQQIAAP + [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, Ally, Pansexual] community. I think we need to educate ourselves on everyone under the rainbow umbrella. We have to understand each other. We have to listen to each other and we have to stay united. This is how we will make further progress in terms of equality and equity in health.
Can you explain why access to healthcare is so crucial for trans / non-binary people?
Everyone needs to have access to health care. Health is a right. We must therefore work on the health disparities that exist. This includes sexual and gender minorities, but there are many health care disparities for the African American community, the Hispanic community, Native Americans, and Native Alaskan communities. But when it comes to sexual and gender minorities, if the members of our community don’t feel that they will be accepted, then they will not have health care. Scores of LGBTQ people have experienced discrimination and harassment in the healthcare community.
Thus, they do not seek care or avoid and postpone care, which has significant negative health consequences. This is why it is so important that the administration and the health and social services reinterpret section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act. [which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex—including sexual orientation and gender identity—age, or disability in covered health programs or activities].
No one should be discriminated against when seeking care because of who they are and who they love. You know, I’m a pediatrician and a specialist in adolescent medicine, and that’s also true for children.
Speaking of children, we see an increase in prohibitions for transgender youth from participating in sports.
Yes, it’s really hard that there are states and officials who subject trans children to this type of stress, harassment and discrimination. Trans children are very vulnerable and they are bullied in school. They face many different challenges and they need our support on their journey, with who they are and in all other aspects. It is therefore difficult that there are laws that try to prohibit them from playing sports. And there are well-accepted guidelines for how trans children can participate in sports. In Arkansas and some other states, certain laws limit their access to trans-claiming medical care. This is unacceptable. For me, it’s political. This is a central issue that has a direct impact and threat to trans youth.
Businesses love to act like they care about gay people once a year to make sure you give them money. In what authentic ways can businesses support the queer community?
What companies need to do is make sure they are looking internally. They review their human resources department, as well as their workplace policies and culture to support LGBTQ employees. And it is essential that they have non-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation as well as gender identity and expression.
Where do you see that we, as a country, are making the most progress on LGBTQ issues?
I am a positive and optimistic person, and I believe that under the Biden-Harris administration we have already made progress, and we will continue to make progress. From my perspective, as Assistant Secretary of Health, health equity, in general, is part of my portfolio. This includes health equity for LGBTQ issues. We are therefore going to relaunch and expand the Council on Disparities in Health and Social Services. We have already made a significant policy change with respect to section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act. But just because we say it’s all over, doesn’t mean. We need to ensure that policy changes are implemented. So there is a lot of work to be done.
You have a huge job ahead of you. How do you stay energized for this?
I help people. This is what I am trying to do. I saw patients, mostly teenagers, and I helped them. I educated students, residents and staff to help families. I did clinical research on new ways to help teens, and then I developed administrative programs to do so. Then I entered the civil service in Pennsylvania as a general practitioner and secretary of health. From there I tried to help people from a public health point of view. Now, as the Assistant Secretary of Health, I’m trying to do it nationally. And that’s really my main motivation: to help people. This is how I stay energized.
This interview has been edited slightly for more space and clarity.
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