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Pennsylvania health official speaks out against transphobic attacks

Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine addresses the media on July 28, 2020, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

(The Center Square) – Pennsylvania’s top health official and the face of its pandemic response addressed the transphobic attacks levied against her in recent weeks, encouraging acceptance and support over intolerance and hate.

“I want to emphasize that while these individuals may think that they are only expressing their displeasure with me, they are in fact hurting the thousands of LGTBQ Pennsylvanians who suffer directly from these current demonstrations of harassment,” Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said during a news conference Tuesday. “Your actions perpetuate the spirit of intolerance and discrimination against LGBTQ individuals and specifically transgender individuals.”

Levine’s comments follow a public statement from Gov. Tom Wolf admonishing local officials in Bloomsburg for sanctioning a dunk tank that featured a man dressed as Levine as part of a carnival that raised funds for local fire departments earlier this month.

Wolf said the incident is just the latest in a string of bigoted public attacks against Levine cloaked as disagreement over the economic and social restrictions she’s advocated for throughout the pandemic. Bloomsburg Fair Association members apologized for the incident and said the man was meant to represent Marilyn Monroe, but only morphed into an impression of Levine as carnival goers noticed a resemblance.

Levine said Tuesday that she accepts sincere apologies, but encouraged residents to move beyond tolerance and become more accepting of members of the LGTBQ community.

“We have not made progress unless we have all made progress,” she said. “It is in this space that intolerance thrives.”

Levine became the first transgender woman appointed to a Pennsylvania cabinet position in 2015 after serving as a leading pediatric physician at Penn State Hershey Medical Center for more than 20 years. The Massachusetts native graduated from both Harvard College and the Tulane University School of Medicine before completing a fellowship at New York City’s Mount Sinai Hospital in 1993.

But Levine’s extensive qualifications haven’t shielded her from hate speech and transphobic remarks, Wolf noted in his remarks last week. During a conference call with reporters in May, Levine called out KDKA Radio talk show host Marty Griffin for repeatedly calling her “sir.” Griffin apologized, saying he was distracted during the call.

The incident prompted Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto to cancel an interview with the radio station the following day, citing the “bad behavior.”

“Growing up, KDKA had good people who made us proud to be from Pittsburgh,” he said in the May 12 tweet. “Now, it shock-jocks, sensationalism & worse.”

Levine said Tuesday she wouldn’t let the attacks slow her down. She believes stress from the pandemic and its impact on residents’ daily lives might fuel some of the attacks against her, saying that “there may be reasons, but there are no excuses.”

“I have no room in my heart for hatred, and frankly, I do not have time for intolerance,” she said. “My heart is full with a burning desire to help people and my time is full working toward protecting the public health of everyone from COVID-19. I will stay laser-focused on that goal.”

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