En español | Activist Erin Roberts spends a lot of time working with LGBTQ youth to help them navigate challenges and understand the routes their futures could take. Now Roberts, a 51-year-old nonbinary trans woman, can point to the nation's new assistant secretary of health as an example of success.
In March, pediatrician Rachel Levine, M.D., became the first openly transgender federal official to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
Roberts, from Dallas, Texas, says she feels energized by Levine's elevation to a top spot in the federal government and admires the medical expert's ability to be effective despite a climate that often does not support trans people.
Roberts also hopes the example of Levine's professional trajectory will lead to more career opportunities for the entire LGBTQ community, but especially for transgender people.
"Dr. Levine is trying to make sure the door is open, and the path is clear,” Roberts says, adding that it's crucial to “throw a rope behind” and pull up the next generation. “These young people have something real to aspire to — and that changes the world."
A journey of leadership
Levine, 63 grew up in Massachusetts and received her medical degree from the Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans. She completed a residency in pediatrics at New York City's Mount Sinai Medical Center and a few years later began working at the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. There, she facilitated LGBTQ groups and was instrumental in the formation of the hospital's adolescent treatment division and eating disorders clinic.
Levine had a flourishing career in Pennsylvania, a wife and two kids. But in interviews she has said she felt something was missing. Levine began taking steps to transition from male to female, first coming out publicly as transgender in 2011 and divorcing several years later.
In 2014, Levine was chosen by Pennsylvania's governor to be the state's physician general and later became the state's secretary of health. While leading the Keystone State's response to COVID-19, Levine rose in prominence via daily pandemic news briefings to become one of the country's highest-profile transgender government officials.
Confirmed March 24 by a bipartisan vote of the U.S. Senate as assistant secretary of health at the Department of Health and Human Services, Levine acknowledged the historic significance of her position as a transgender woman.
"I recognize that I may be the first,” she said in a statement to The New York Times, “but I am heartened by the knowledge that I will not be the last.”
Reasons for Hope
Many in the LGBTQ community hailed Levine's confirmation as a step toward creating a world where people can make career choices without worry about being adversely judged for their gender identity or expression.
That sentiment was echoed by the nation's first transgender trial judge, Victoria Kolakowski, 59, of Alameda County, California. “Those of us who are transgender professionals are increasingly being recognized for our qualifications in our fields of expertise, which is encouraging a new generation of transgender youth to pursue their professional passions,” she says.
Others see the moment in LGBTQ history as a harbinger of increased acceptance.
For some leaders, Levine's story signifies a battle won in the struggle for acknowledgment and achievement. Mary Anne Adams, 66, the executive director of Atlanta, Georgia–based ZAMI NOBLA (National Organization of Black Lesbians on Aging), believes Levine's elevation proves that being open about who you are doesn't have to be a barrier.
"This seminal appointment provides a beacon of hope to anyone daring to live their lives authentically,” she says. “The never-ending fight for civil and human rights needs advocates both in and outside of the Beltway.”
But not everyone is quite so optimistic.
Julia Serano, 53, a biologist and transgender activist from Oakland, California, acknowledged the symbolism of Levine's appointment. “When someone becomes the ‘first ever’ person from a historically marginalized group to achieve something, it is viewed as a sign of progress,” she says.
Yet, Serano also noted that the threat of a backlash against transgender people and their rights remains. “It is difficult for me to see this as a wholly positive ‘turning point’ moment,” she says.
For Pastor Tony Amato, 53, of Kingston, New York, a transgender man who often works with the LGBTQ community, Levine's confirmation could prove a balm for the insecurity and violence faced by many.
He recounted how after a severe automobile accident, a trans male friend refused an ambulance, fearing the EMTs would discover his chest binders and harass him. Many trans people, Amato stressed, have shown the same reticence about seeking medical treatment for COVID-19. He believes that with Levine's confirmation, the government sends a signal: The trans community not only has a right to exist, but will be cared for.
Court Stroud is a contributing writer who covers media, entertainment and diversity, including LGBTQ issues. He has also written for The New York Times, The Washington Post and Forbes.