Under fire for her policies, Health Secretary Levine remains an icon to Pa.’s trans community

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

Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine has become the face of the coronavirus response in Pennsylvania, giving daily briefings on the latest health information about the virus, sometimes drawing criticism but always maintaining a steadfast demeanor in front of the cameras as she reminds people to wash their hands and stay safe. 

Levine was a minor celebrity within the Wolf administration already, as the first transgender woman to hold a statewide cabinet position in Pennsylvania. 

And she’s certainly been subject to more than her share of transphobic attacks online, which has led to a community of staunch supporters defending her on Twitter and Facebook, including a “Dr. Levine We Love You” Facebook group.

So when KDKA-AM radio host Marty Griffin repeatedly referred to Levine as “sir” during a Tuesday call with reporters, Ciora Thomas, head of the trans support organization SisTers PGH who serves on the state commission for LGBTQ affairs, said she believed it was not accidental. 

“When I heard about this, I thought it seemed intentional, and here’s why,” Thomas said. “Dr. Rachel has been on television, leading the way on this pandemic. Marty is in the position where he should supposedly be paying attention to the media. There’s no way Marty Griffin missed the information she was a trans woman.” 

Levine corrects Pittsburgh radio host during call ‘Please stop misgendering me’

On Wednesday’s radio show, Griffin said he had reached out to apologize to Levine directly. He added that she was welcome to come on the show any time. Levine’s office confirmed that Griffin had contacted her and she had accepted his apology.

“I was not trying to gender shame anyone, it was a mistake,” Griffin said on the show. “When I inadvertently, ridiculously and in an obnoxious way called Dr. Levine ‘sir’ it was not intentional. What I want to make sure of is that the folks who support what I did know that this was not some mission, this was ignorant on my part. I’m completely flabbergasted by my idiotic behavior.” 

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto tweeted on Tuesday that he would not participate in a previously-scheduled interview on KDKA-AM with journalist Lynne Hayes-Freeland. “When the comments from Marty Griffin surfaced we canceled,” Peduto spokesman Tim McNulty said in an email. “The Mayor greatly respects Lynne but he has no plans to talk to KD radio for the foreseeable future.”

Levine has also taken fire for her management of the crisis, including revelations this week that she moved her aged mother out of a nursing home even as infections and deaths in the facilities continued to rise. At an online briefing Wednesday, Levine defended the decision, Newsweek reported. She has faced calls, by Republican lawmakers, for resignation.

“My mother requested and my sister and I, as her children, complied to move her to another location during the COVID-19 outbreak,” Levine said, who described her mother as “more than competent to make her own decisions.”

For members of the trans community in Pittsburgh, Levine is an inspiration, Thomas said. 

“It’s extremely important to see not just that trans people exist, but that we can lead the charge on issues and we’re capable of doing unimaginable work,” Thomas said. “I’m always inspired by the work she’s doing and how she’s able to stay so calm.” 

Thomas added that she thought Peduto could do more to show his support for Pittsburgh’s trans community, noting that he has not met with the LGBTQIA+ Advisory Council — which she serves on– since the pandemic began.

“He has not mentioned [the trans community] since this started, and suddenly he’s an ally of Rachel Levine,” Thomas said. “”You should also be invested in the trans community within your own city.” 

She added she would like to see the mayor do video calls with trans organizations as he has done with other groups during the pandemic. 

Peduto’s office declined to comment through a spokesman. The Health Department declined to comment beyond confirming Griffin had contacted Levine, but pointed to Wednesday’s announcement that the state would include gender identity and sexual orientation or expression in its collection of COVID-19 data, as an example of the Wolf administration’s support of the LGBTQ community. 

Gov. Tom Wolf announced that the Department of Health would be using the data collection platform Sara Alert to help ensure it was accurately counting the LGBTQ community. The health department requested a modification to the platform so it could accurately collect data about sexual orientation and gender identity. 

The Health Department also has requested the state’s six health information organizations help gather this data from electronic medical records. 

The pandemic has been difficult for the trans community, particularly for trans women of color, Thomas said, with many losing jobs, housing and income. SisTers PGH launched an emergency relief fund for LGBTQ+ people in Pittsburgh, which has raised about $32,000 toward a $100,000 goal.

“A lot of black and brown trans women in Pittsburgh were already struggling before the pandemic began,” she said. “This has only put marginalized people more in the margins.” 

Correspondent Kim Lyons covers Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania for the Capital-Star. Follow her on Twitter @SocialKimLy.