Pa. Health Secretary Rachel Levine gained renown as the face of the commonwealth's COVID response

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Tuesday was the first morning in almost a year that Celena Morrison skipped breakfast.

As soon as she scrolled through her phone — and saw President-elect Joe Biden had tapped Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine to be his assistant secretary of health — she jumped out of bed and barreled downstairs to her work-from-home setup. Philly’s director of the Office of LGBT Affairs was so eager to read more about the appointment, she realized she never ate.

The face of Pa.’s COVID response for the last year, Levine is set to become the first openly transgender federal official confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

“It’s just the excitement of knowing that constantly we’re seeing people from our community reaching higher and higher levels, taking it one step further and knocking down barriers,” Morrison told Billy Penn. “And she’s from here. That was like an extra little prize there.”

In a statement Tuesday morning, Biden called Levine “a historic and deeply qualified choice to help lead our administration’s health efforts.”

“Since I began state service in 2015, I have been laser focused on building a healthy Pennsylvania for all and I am proud of the work we have done at the Department of Health during my tenure,” said Levine, a Harvard grad and former pediatrician. “I look forward to the opportunity to continue to serve Pennsylvanians, and all Americans, as part of the Biden Administration.”

Levine first joined Pennsylvania’s health department as physician general in 2015, then became secretary of health three years later. She’s president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, and she’s authored papers on the opioid crisis, medical marijuana, eating disorders and LGBTQ medicine.

News of her appointment thrilled trans women in Philadelphia, who were teeming with local pride and eager to be represented on the national stage.

Point Breeze resident Kendall Stephens called it a “landmark” for the LGBTQ community.

“I almost dropped my phone in disbelief,” said Stephens, a 34-year-old trans woman. “I had a visceral reaction to her appointment, because it’s just very rare for someone who’s trans-identified to make it to that level that position of power.”

Stephens suffered a transphobic attack in the summer of 2020 that fractured her nose, bruised her ribs and left a gash in her head. She’s one of at least three Black trans women who were attacked in the city last year. The other two, Dominique Rem’mie Fells and Mia Green, didn’t survive.

Stephens thinks Levine’s ascension might help turn the tide. “How we are represented and presented to the world matters and has a direct correlation to how society treats us,” she said. “This is so positive. It steers us in the right direction.”

Elizabeth Coffey-Williams, a 72-year-old trans woman, met Levine about two years ago while speaking on a panel in Harrisburg. She got the impression the Pennsylvania health secretary was kind, and genuinely cared about people.

A lifelong advocate, Coffey-Williams didn’t think she’d live to see the day a trans person made it to a federal position.

“It was always something that I hoped for,” she said. “I’m part of a community where that frequently doesn’t happen. It’s enormously gratifying to have been lucky enough to be around long enough to see it happen.”

Since she took over Pennsylvania’s health department, Levine has been a regular recipient of transphobic slurs. Coffey-Williams said she’s seen Levine handle the attacks with grace, which she finds inspiring.

Perhaps most importantly, Stephens said Levine’s rise to the federal level creates a new role model for a generation of young trans people — and it helps counter the narrative that the only thing that happens to trans women is violence and murder.

“We’re so much more than that,” she said. “The more visible we are, the more active we are in our communities, the more we’re properly represented in government and in society as a whole, I think the more the world will come to realize how valuable we are.”

Update, March 25: Levine was confirmed by a 52-48 vote in the U.S. Senate as President Biden’s assistant health secretary. Said Levine in a statement:

“I recognize that I may be the first [openly transgender official confirmed], but am heartened by the knowledge that I will not be the last. … I will stand on the shoulders of those who came before- people we know throughout history and those whose names we will never know because they were forced to live and work in the shadows.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...