As Pennsylvania’s secretary of health, Levine has risen to national prominence for leading the state’s public health response to the coronavirus pandemic, despite repeated and ugly attacks on her gender identity.
Biden’s transition team noted that Levine — appointed by Gov. Tom Wolf (D) in 2017 as acting health secretary — was confirmed three times by the Republican-controlled state Senate to serve as secretary of health and the state’s physician general. At the time, she was one of only a handful of transgender officials serving in elected or appointed offices nationwide.
If confirmed as assistant secretary of health, Levine would be the highest-ranking transgender official in the U.S. government.
“President-elect Biden said throughout his campaign that his administration would represent America," said Mara Keisling, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. “Today, he made clear that transgender people are an important part of our country.”
Serving under Xavier Becerra, Biden’s nominee to head the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Levine would oversee key health offices and programs across the department, 10 regional health offices nationwide, the Office of the Surgeon General and the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps.
Her nomination comes after an election season in which a record number of LGBTQ candidates ran for office but after four years of a presidential administration that repeatedly erased protections for transgender people — in health care, federal employment, federal prisons, homeless shelters and other housing services receiving federal funding.
Biden has signaled a significant shift from the Trump administration when it comes to inclusion of the transgender community. He mentioned transgender people in his presidential acceptance speech, and released a lengthy platform outlining his plans to prioritize LGBTQ rights. Biden also named to his transition team Shawn Skelly, a former special assistant to the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, and coordinator of the Defense Department Warfighter Senior Integration Group. Skelly was the first transgender veteran to be appointed by a U.S. president.
Over the past two months, advocates have urged Biden to nominate LGBTQ leaders to key positions in the administration. Biden named Pete Buttigieg to lead the Transportation Department, making him the first openly LGBTQ person nominated to a permanent Cabinet position. As the highest-ranking appointed transgender official in the United States, Levine was often near the top of advocates’ lists of suggested names for top roles.
“She’s just so highly qualified, regardless of her gender identity,” said Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, who was the first openly transgender appointee in the Obama White House. Freedman-Gurspan happened to be in Pennsylvania with friends on Tuesday morning when the news of Levine’s nomination broke.
“We all screamed,” she said. “It is well deserved and I think it sends a message to the trans community about how valued we are. We have a seat at the table. There’s no doubt about that.”