Pa. lawmaker compares treatment of anti-maskers to transphobic bigotry

Rep. Russ Diamond delivers a speech on the Pa. House floor in 2017. (Courtesy of Pa. House)

This story was updated at 8:44 a.m. July 31 with additional information

A libertarian lawmaker from Lebanon County, who said he “pioneered” not wearing a mask, has compared harassment of people who do not cover their faces to transphobic bigotry.

In a statement shared on his state Facebook account on Wednesday, GOP Rep. Russ Diamond described a “spirit of intolerance and discrimination” directed at people who don’t wear face-masks during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Just a day earlier, in a Tuesday address, state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine used the same words to call out a string of transphobic incidents against her. Levine, who is transgender, also asked for equality and respect for her and others in the LGBTQ community.

The letter also marks a complete turnaround for Diamond, who, early in the pandemic, seemed supportive of masks, but has since become one of the commonwealth’s most vehement opponents of face coverings. 

In the letter Wednesday, Diamond repeated many of Levine’s lines, replacing a few words with his own to match his point on masks.

“I have no room in my heart for hatred and frankly I do not have time for intolerance,” Diamond said in his statement. “My heart is full with a burning desire to help people and my time is full with working towards protecting the freedom and liberty of everyone from the impact of the government overreach in response to COVID-19. And I will stay laser-focused on that goal.”

That’s mostly the same as Levine’s own speech delivered the day before.

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

Full text: Pa. Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine’s response to transphobic attacks

Levine has faced frequent public attacks for her gender identity. 

In just the last few days, a conservative media website used her name from before her transition in a story; officials at the  Bloomsburg, Pa. fair apologized for social media images of a man in a dress and wig for a dunk tank described as “Dr. Levine”; and a Tioga County tavern mocked her gender identity in a menu item.

Diamond also echoed Levine that people without masks have been “denied access to public accommodations,” and equated inequalities suffered by LGBTQ youth, LGBTQ people of color, and immigrants to someone who chooses to not wear a mask from such a group.

Asked about the similarities, Diamond told the Capital-Star in a text message that Levine “made an impassioned speech in defense of her lifestyle choices, and when I read it I instantly recalled all the hatred and threats I’ve received for opposing the ridiculous mask policy.”

Diamond added in a Facebook comment that Levine “doesn’t see that her own policies have created more of exactly what she was lamenting. Hopefully, using some of her own words will draw her attention to that.”

The third-term lawmaker has frequently been at odds with Levine and the state’s response to the pandemic. 

Diamond called for Levine to resign, joined an effort to impeach Gov. Tom Wolf, authored legislation to end his coronavirus disaster declaration, and has appeared at multiple protests opposing quarantine. 

Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, wearing a mask during a House committee meeting on April 6, 2020. (Pa. House video)

He also flouts masks, comparing a child wearing one to child abuse, and claimed, in an interview with USA Today to have “pioneered not wearing a mask.” But that’s a change in position from earlier in the pandemic.

In an April interview with the Capital-Star, Diamond referred to Wolf’s April 3 mask recommendation as “probably the most common sense thing he’s done” throughout the pandemic.

As the Capital-Star reported at the time, Diamond even located 125 masks, brought them to the Capitol for his colleagues, encouraged their use, and wore one in a committee hearing.

Of the change of heart, Diamond said he educated himself on the topic. 

“It was a gradual process,” he added.

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Diamond was also one of two Republican lawmakers who quarantined due to possible exposure to COVID-19 when a GOP colleagues was confirmed positive for the virus in May

Mask wars

Diamond’s letter attempted to draw a comparison between Levine’s plea for civility and respect for LGBTQ people and tensions over masks.

In a statement Thursday, Wolf said the comparison and the statement was “a thinly veiled attack on the LGBTQ community.”

“To equate any disrespect for those not wearing masks to the decades of disrespect, threats and violence against our LGBTQ community goes far beyond the hallmarks of a decent society,” Wolf, a Democrat, said. “For these actions to come from a legislator elected to fairly represent all his constituents is simply unforgivable.”

He also asked for the Republican-controlled House to censure Diamond for the statement.

In response, Diamond echoed another statement mirroring his opposites language. This time, he called for Wolf to resign — after dismissing Levine.

Diamond’s original letter cites “hate and intolerance directed at me that have not necessarily been reported in the press, but are rampant across social media and the internet.”

Some comments on the Facebook post display that vitriol, while others expressed vigorous support. One commenter expressed frustration for being asked to not use an outdoor ATM without a mask.

Diamond did not provide specific of violence directed at people without masks, such as the threats that trans people face. Later Wednesday, he did share an anonymous letter he said was sent to him by someone who said using a mask triggered PTSD.

In an emailed statement, the Mazzoni Center, a Philadelphia-based LGBTQ health group, said Diamond falsley termed being trans as a choice. They also said his comparison of “the glares and lectures that people choosing to not wear a mask may face with anti-LGBTQ+ harassment, violence, and murder” was false.

The center also said that Diamond should offer an apology “for the mocking tone of his original ‘statement’ in support of a fictional ‘unmasked community’ and for condoning, through his ongoing silence, the scourge of anti-LGBTQ violence.”

According to Human Rights Watch, a LGBTQ rights organization, 25 trans or gender queer people have been murdered this year alone. Halfway through the year, that’s nearly the total of murders committed last year.

LGBTQ Pennsylvania residents, up until a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling this year, could be fired from a job for their sexuality or gender identity. Some holes in that ruling could still require state legislative action to fill.

As for mask-related hostility, viral videos abound of heated exchanges between people wearing and not wearing masks. But media reports also describe maskless people responding with violence when asked to wear a face covering.

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Earlier this month in Michigan, an elderly man was stabbed after requesting a fellow customer wear a mask. Police later shot and killed the perpetrator.

Vice reported earlier this week that two men asked to wear masks in a New York City Trader Joe’s attacked store employees hospitalizing one employee, among other incidents of mask-related violence. All the incidents were from people refusing to wear one.

‘Tis a shame

Research on wearing masks shows they reduce disease transmission. But there is less consensus among health experts and elected officials on how to turn a request for good-natured cooperation into near-uniform compliance with the public safety measure, even as the country deals with new highs of COVID-19 cases.

Overall, mask use has fed a bitter ideological divide. According to polling released Thursday by Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, nearly two in three Pennsylvania voters believe it is extremely important to wear a mask.

But the top line hides a stark gap, as 88 percent of liberal and 84 percent of moderates believe it is extremely important to wear a mask. Just 42 percent of conservatives agree.

Some Republican leaders, such as U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, have worn masks and encouraged their use throughout the pandemic, others, such as President Donald Trump, started only in the last few weeks.

This politicizing of masks has gone hand in hand with public shaming over individuals’ choice to use them

In the state House alone, arch-conservative Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, called them “masks of fear” in a meeting, where he and some Republicans colleagues sat maskless, while other Republicans and all Democrats wore them.

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Meanwhile, in his statement excoriating Diamond, Wolf said that “virtually no thinking person disputes mask-wearing as an effective means to stop the spread of COVID.”

Diamond himself did not elaborate on what information changed his mind on masks. He told USA Today that reusable masks “get damp and collect bacteria if they’re not properly cleaned,” and that “too many people fiddle with them and end up touching their face more.”

Diamond added that his fiancee cannot wear a mask, as it triggers seizures, so he wears a mask in solidarity with her.

Writing in The Atlantic last month, Harvard University epidemiologist Julia Marcus did acknowledge that the public health messaging over masks has been “mudded and confusing.” Early in the pandemic, health authorities advised against them. 

Wolf himself didn’t introduce a statewide mask policy until early April, weeks into the pandemic response. It started as just a recommendation, before becoming a mandate in July. 

Under Wolf’s mask order, Pennsylvanians are required to wear a mask inside a business, or outside if within six feet of someone else. There are some exemptions for people with respiratory issues, who cannot wear one during the course of their work, or those who cannot remove a mask without assistance.

New evidence, such as a University of Iowa study released last month, indicates that widespread use of masks can prevent the spread of the virus by reducing transmission.

Experts point out that masks primarily protect others, rather than the person wearing it, and can reduce exposure by people carrying the virus who do not show symptoms.

That was still enough for both international and federal health officials to recommend masks as a prevention measure in “public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain,” according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Theoretically, local or state police could fine you up to $300 for not wearing a mask. But the Wolf administration has claimed it wants voluntary cooperation on public health orders without heavy enforcement. State police have only issued a handful of citations to individuals and businesses for breaking health policies.

It is unclear if private businesses are up to the task, as reported by WHYY-FM, a Philadelphia public radio station.

But vigorous enforcement could fall heavily on communities of color and harm the disabled, WHYY-FM added, raising equity concerns.

Nearly 108,000 Pennsylvanians have had COVID-19, and almost than 7,200 have died.