White House Finally Defends Trans Official After GOP Onslaught

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Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty
Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty

The Biden administration is quietly mounting a defense of an administration official who has become the primary target of aggressive attacks by Republicans who see in her a focal point for the culture wars over transgender rights.

Dr. Rachel Levine, the assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services, has largely been focused on disparities in healthcare equity since her confirmation in March 2021. In her position, a traditionally low-profile post in the federal bureaucracy, she has focused on access to care, standards of care, and, more recently, women’s access to reproductive care in the wake of Dobbs. But her status as a transgender woman—and her public support for LGBTQ healthcare equity—has made her an increasing target for transphobic attacks by conservative media outlets, television personalities, and elected officials.

“Dr. Levine is a widely respected public health official, and the intention is to build her up,” said one administration official who was not authorized to speak on the matter, “not to debase her and ourselves by engaging with people who are truly beneath contempt.”

Nearly all of those attacks are based on Levine’s identity as the first transgender woman to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, ranging from near-relentless misgendering to denigration of her personal appearance.

That abuse hit a new crescendo on Monday when Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), for whom disparaging transgender people has become a key component of her political identity, attacked Levine in deeply personal terms in apparent retaliation for Levine urging leaders to “support and empower” transgender youth.

“We must do everything we can to prevent Dr. Dick Levine’s pre-teen #WeenieChop,” tweeted Greene, in a post featuring a clip of Levine discussing access to gender-affirming care during a cable news appearance. Greene followed that tweet with another even more graphic post: “Now that I think about it. As Dr. Dick Levine advocates for ‘gender affirming care’ for minors, has he undergone the #WeenieChop himself? Or is he just pushing this on children?”

Until now, the administration has remained largely silent on Republican politicians’ targeting of Levine for being transgender, a decision that has frustrated some LGBTQ activists, one of whom told The Daily Beast that defending Levine is “less about dignifying transphobes with a response than it is showing Americans that she is worthy of defense.”

Twitter Suspends Charlie Kirk for Repeatedly Misgendering Rachel Levine

But as the deeply personal attacks on Levine continue to escalate, the White House is now encouraging officials across the administration to emphasize the work she has done on health equity, including for LGBTQ children, in order to lift her profile above the fray.

On Tuesday morning, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, the first out LGBTQ person to serve in the role, tweeted that the Biden administration is “stronger because of [Levine]’s work to deliver quality health care for all Americans, no matter who they are.”

“She is a leader who is standing up for all of our children, especially some of our most vulnerable,” Jean-Pierre wrote, linking to Levine’s op-ed in the Miami Herald. The post was shared by nearly a dozen members of the administration.

Greene’s posts are the latest attacks on Levine as a transgender person in a campaign that stretches back to her first days at the Department of Health and Human Services. But this most recent spate appears largely to have snowballed in conservative media spheres after the Babylon Bee, a conservative satire site, dubbed Levine as its “Man of the Year” in March. The Babylon Bee’s refusal to delete a tweet linking to that article led to its Twitter account being locked, a move that prompted conservative media figures like Charlie Kirk and Tucker Carlson to attack both Twitter and Levine, each of them sharing social media posts misgendering Levine.

Both of Greene’s tweets were labeled as violating Twitter’s rule against “hateful content,” but remain visible because the platform “has determined that it may be in the public’s interest for the Tweet to remain accessible,” per a statement attached to the posts.

As Republicans have made limiting transgender rights, particularly those of transgender youth, a key part of their midterm election strategy, LGBTQ organizations have warned that the increasingly ugly rhetoric around trans identity is dangerous for kids who are often already isolated and ostracized within their own communities.

“Anti-transgender extremists are using Admiral Rachel Levine as a political pawn to try to further their own agenda of rolling back the clock on equal rights,” said Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, executive director of GLSEN, which works to counter bullying and harassment of LGBTQ children in schools. “When politicians and pundits set the example that harassing transgender people is OK, it sends a message that trans youth are unsafe.”

Public attacks like Greene’s, said Trevor Project director of advocacy and government affairs Sam Ames, lead to an increased risk of self-harm—particularly amidst the legislative push to ban transgender kids from bathrooms and team sports, as well as discussion of their existence in classrooms.

“These young people are already placed at increased risk for suicide because of how they are mistreated, and the increasingly vicious rhetoric we’re seeing will only contribute to that risk,” said Ames. “We need to end the public health crisis of LGBTQ youth suicide—not exacerbate it.”

Levine herself has pushed to make that risk a priority for the administration, writing in her Miami Herald op-ed piece that “the actions of some state leaders are hurting young Americans, likely with long-term consequences.”

Twitter Calls Out Texas AG Ken Paxton for ‘Hateful Conduct’ in Anti-Trans Tweet

“All of us, especially those in positions of governmental responsibility, should work against intolerance until everyone living in America can live their life openly and freely,” Levine wrote, calling for legislators to base legislation on “real data and human compassion.”

It was that op-ed, as well as Levine’s Monday appearance on MSNBC, that kicked off the latest attacks.

Republican leadership has been entirely mute in regards to caucus members' vilification of Levine. A spokesperson for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) did not respond to requests for comment about Greene’s posts, nor did a spokesperson for Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.).

Historically, the White House has practiced a general policy of not dignifying fringe members of the Republican Party like Greene with a response, an informal practice that dates back to the first week of the Biden administration.

“I’m not going to speak further about her, I think, in this briefing room,” then-White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on January 27, 2021, a prediction that generally came to pass.

Levine, like many LGBTQ public figures before her, has generally avoided centering her own identity as it relates to her work. Rather than address Greene’s comments—or any similar remarks made by other Republican politicians—Levine reposted Jean-Pierre’s tweet and thanked her for her support.

“I’m honored to be a part of this administration and to support the health of the American people every day,” Levine tweeted. “Everyone deserves medical care, regardless of their gender or any other fact about them.”

Levine’s general tendency to sidestep similarly hostile remarks came into practice most notably during her confirmation hearing to join the administration. At the time, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) launched into a transphobic rant about transgender medical care for minors in an apparent attempt to bait Levine, who thanked Paul for his “interest” in the question of transgender medicine rather than engage directly with his questions about “mutilation” of children.

“If I’m fortunate enough to be confirmed, I will look forward to working with you and your office and coming to your office to discuss the particulars of the standards of care for transgender medicine,” Levine said at the time.

One former colleague of Levine’s at the Pennsylvania Department of Health, where she served as secretary, said that this was in keeping with their own experience of her time in office.

“She can tune it out,” the former colleague said. “It’s about the work, not the noise.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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