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Dr. Rachel Levine On Her Trailblazing Role As The First Openly Trans Federal Official


Dr. Rachel Levine is the new assistant secretary of health in the Biden administration. She takes on this job at an historic time - more than one year into a pandemic. And she's also making history as the first openly transgender federal official confirmed by the Senate. She faced combative questions about medical care for trans people during her confirmation hearing. And after the Senate voted to confirm her, she released a statement. Part of it addressed trans youth saying, quote, "Some of the challenges you face are from people who would seek to use your identity and circumstance as a weapon." When we spoke today, I asked Dr. Levine to elaborate.

RACHEL LEVINE: I am very proud. I'm very grateful to have been nominated by President Biden and to be - to have been confirmed by the Senate in a bipartisan vote. But I know that this is new for many people, so I like to quote that sage Yoda from "Star Wars." You know, fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering. I think that people fear what they don't understand. And so my goal is to educate people through my public appearances but also just by being in my position so that they can be educated about LGBTQ issues, about transgender people, which will help - will decrease fear and then decrease some of the negative reaction that people have.

SHAPIRO: But right now you're not operating in a vacuum. Many states across the country are considering and passing bills that would outlaw puberty blockers and hormone treatment for transgender youth. I mean, you worked in Pennsylvania as a pediatrician. You understand adolescent medicine well. How do you view these bills?

LEVINE: Well, I think that they're very challenging. I think it's really challenging to see state legislators and certain governors targeting LGBTQ people, particularly vulnerable transgender youth. And so I will do everything I can to advocate for transgender and LGBTQ youth, to educate people and states about LGBTQ and specifically transgender issues and work towards fairness and equality.

SHAPIRO: Is there a risk to your wading into these political debates? - because as you know, under the Trump administration, HHS was accused of being politicized. Is there a concern that if you become vocally involved in these very charged partisan debates, you might be setting yourself up to be accused of politicizing HHS in a different way?

LEVINE: Well, see; I don't think that this is a political issue at all. This is about fairness and equality and about specifically health equity, which is part of my portfolio.

SHAPIRO: Some people may not be familiar with the term health equity. Describe what you mean as it relates specifically to this debate over transgender youth that so many states are having.

LEVINE: Well, you know, we see many health care disparities based upon race, upon age, but also in terms of sexual orientation and gender identity. And we want to get rid of these health care disparities. And so we - everybody deserves to have an equal playing field in terms of health care. And my goal is to advocate for that to happen.

SHAPIRO: As a doctor, do you also have concerns about lawmakers intervening in private family medical decisions for their children? I mean, often, conservative politicians try to protect family decisions about children from government intervention. In this case, it seems to be going the other way.

LEVINE: I would agree with that. I mean, I really think that the decisions about health care for LGBTQ youth are really between the family, the young person, their doctor, maybe their therapist. And that's where those decisions lie.

SHAPIRO: It is easy to look at these debates happening all over the country and see the many challenges that trans people face today. But you grew up in a different generation, and your confirmation is just one example of how much things have changed since you were a kid. So could I ask you to end by just reflecting back on your early experiences and the way that things may have evolved for the better since then?

LEVINE: Well, absolutely. So, you know, I grew up in the '60s and the '70s, and there was significant marginalization of LGBTQ individuals. The word Q wasn't even part of the lexicon. So I think that the language wasn't even there, actually, to talk about it. So we've made so much progress. We have made so much progress, but we still have a long way to go in terms of true fairness and equality for sexual and gender minorities. And I will continue to advocate and to work towards that. Now, we've talked before. You know that I am a positive and optimistic person, and I think that we will get there. I know that there are challenges, but in my heart, I think we will be successful.

SHAPIRO: That's Dr. Rachel Levine, assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Thank you so much.

LEVINE: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.

SHAPIRO: And in another part of the show, we talk with Dr. Levine about the pandemic and the border. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.