Levine’s policies are fair game for criticism. Attacking her identity is vile bigotry

May 15, 2020 1:35 pm

Pa. Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine briefs the press on Saturday, 4/25/20

On Tuesday afternoon, we published a short story about Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine’s run in with Pittsburgh radio host Marty Griffin, where Levine, a transgender woman, admonished the talk radio personality for repeatedly calling her “sir” during a conference call with journalists.

Social media being the cesspool of incivility that it tends to be, I expected some pushback from noisy bigots who’d find our coverage and use it as an excuse to attack Levine for her gender identity. What I did not expect was to spend the next three days repeatedly scrubbing the Capital-Star’s Facebook feed of the most vile bigotry.

Once or twice an hour, I’d head over to our page, and find new comments that had popped up like contaminated dandelions to replace the ones that I’d hidden or deleted earlier in the day.

I took my complaint to Twitter, noting that, at my former employer, PennLive, readers and others often told me that our comments section would calm down if only we forced people to link their Facebook accounts to the site and required them to post under their real names.

Well, friends, I’m here to tell you that’s a fiction.

Every single comment I removed from our Facebook feed was someone posting — I assume — under his or her real name. And as the story gained national traction and this tiny, cruel minority followed the links back to our page, the hate, all filed under real names, continued to multiply. And with equal fervor, I removed the posts.

Let’s get something out of the way right now: It’s absolutely fair game to criticize Levine, and her boss, Gov. Tom Wolf, for their management of the pandemic and the information that they have — and have not — chosen to share with the public. I’ve been critical of the administration’s lack of transparency throughout this tragic ordeal. They can do far, far better.

But any attack on Levine’s gender, or her choices, is an exercise in inexcusable hate. And there’s no place for it in our dialogue. And I’ll defend removing it every day of the week.

It’s already well documented that transgender people face massive barriers in our society, and even more so transgender youth, who die by suicide at a far higher rate than their peers, according to the Center for Health Journalism.

In fact, in a 2018 study of youth aged 11-19, 51 percent of transgender males said they’d attempted suicide, the Center for Health Journalism reported. Among transgender females, the figure was 30 percent.

That alone is a tragedy. Ladle it on top of the record number of anti-Semitic incidents that Pennsylvania saw in 2019, all-too-common everyday homophobia, xenophobia, and the racism embodied by the disgusting murder in Georgia of black runner Ahmaud Arbery, and you find a pathology of hate that runs through our culture. And it corrupts us from the inside out.

Taking to Twitter, Wolf’s former press secretary J.J. Abbott, said he took comfort from the fact that transgender youth will look to Levine, see themselves, and see what they could one day become. He, like, me, also reminds himself that, as loud as these voices are, they continue to be a minority.

It’s an important thought. And it’s one to dwell on.

But we owe those future Dr. Levines and the transgender individuals who live next door to us; who worship with us, and who teach our children, a far kinder, far better world.

Pennsylvania lawmakers can help by finally passing legislation that banning employment, housing, and public accommodation discrimination based on someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Then they can go one better and finally move a package of hate crime bills out of the House committees where they’ve been languishing since last fall.

Speaking up and saying we condemn the hate in our midst is one thing. But unless there’s the follow through with action, then it’s only a half-measure.

Here, in the home of William Penn’s holy experiment, it’s the absolute least we can do.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.