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Transgender leaders facing more hate and discrimination as visibility grows

Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine has faced an onslaught of transphobic incidents as she battles the pandemic.

By Casey Quinlan - July 24, 2020
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Dr. Rachel Levine
Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine, Secretary of Health meets with the media at The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) headquarters, Friday, May 29, 2020 in Harrisburg, Pa. (Joe Hermitt/The Patriot-News via AP)

Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine, a transgender woman, has been the subject of discriminatory remarks and incidents over the past few months as she continues to combat a pandemic in her state.

The attacks are a reminder of the rancor and hate transgender people face more broadly, even as they win political office and take on high-powered roles at the state and local level.

LGBTQ advocacy organizations and transgender political leaders say that much of the response to Levine and other transgender politicians is owed at least in part to that increased political representation and visibility.

A fair in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, last week, for instance, featured a dunk tank with a man in glasses wearing a blonde wig and floral dress. An unnamed individual running the Bloomsburg Fair’s Facebook page posted a photo of the event with the caption, “Dr. Levine? Thank you. You were a hit and raised a lot of money for the local fire companies. Wonder why so many were trying to dunk you,” along with a blushing smile emoji.

The post has since been deleted.

Bloomsburg Fair Association President Randy Karschner has since apologized for the post and said David Broadt, the man in the dunk tank, did not intend to dress as Levine but claimed the crowd watching began associating him with Levine.

In July, the Facebook page of Hallam Recreation, in Hallam Borough, posted a meme that read, “If you are ordered to wear a mask by a guy who wears a bra…you might be a Pennsylvanian,” an apparent transphobic reference to Levine.

Glenn Wascovich, the mayor of Hallam, responded to the post later, saying, “Hate has NO home in Hallam.”

In June, a Scott Township commissioner, Paul Abel, resigned after he made a transphobic comment about Levine during a commissioners meeting. Abel referred to the “green phase” of the reopening process — or final phase — saying, “I’m tired of listening to a guy dressed up like a woman.”

Abel later issued a letter of apology, stating he had stepped down from the board “for his wife and family.”

And back in May, a KDKA-AM radio personality, Marty Griffin, called Dr. Levine “sir” three times at least three times during an interview.

Griffin later apologized, claiming in a tweet that he had been distracted at the time.

There has been significant progress in political representation for LGBTQ people in the past year, according to the LGBTQ Victory Institute, which provides training and professional development programs to LGBTQ people. According to the group, there has been a 21% increase in LGBTQ people serving in elected offices and 40% increase in transgender women serving in elected office in the past year.

But with that broader visibility has come an increase in hate and discrimination.

Danica Roem, a Democratic transgender woman who was first elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 2017, ran for re-election and won in 2019. Before she did, Family Foundation Action, a Christian fundamentalist group, released a transphobic attack ad falsely claiming she sponsored a bill “to force all insurance companies to pay for harmful and unnecessary “‘gender transition’ surgeries” and had an “EXTREME social agenda.”

Elsewhere that year, Minnesota state lawmaker Mary Franson (R) tweeted transphobic attacks on two Minneapolis City Council members, Andrea Jenkins, the first Black openly transgender woman elected to public office, and Phillipe Cunningham, a transgender man. “A guy who thinks he’s a girl is still a guy with a mental health condition,” Franson wrote at the time.

Elliot Imse, senior director of communications at the LGBTQ Victory Fund, said transgender people in government, whether elected or appointed like Dr. Levine, are often subject to backlash as their careers progress.

“Trans people are being elected and appointed to higher-level and more prominent positions and the majority of Americans welcome that progress,” Imse said. “Unfortunately, with [that], trailblazers like Dr. Levine often become targets for hate from the most vile segments of society.”

Colorado state Rep. Brianna Titone, the first openly transgender state legislator elected in Colorado, and fourth openly transgender state legislator elected in the nation, said she has been similarly subjected to transphobia from her colleagues, with some lawmakers deliberately misgendering her on the floor of the legislature.

“It’s just petty and ridiculous that they would attack someone’s gender identity because they don’t like the way they’re doing things. Attack the policies. Don’t attack the people,” Titone said.

“Any time minority groups start to gain power, there is a sense that others are losing their power and losing control over the things that they’ve had control over for a long time,” she added. “They are seeking to control anybody they can and the trans community is one of the smallest communities out there.”

Worse, Human Rights Campaign state director Ryan Matthews said transphobic incidents like the dunk tank at the Bloomsburg Fair often translate into violence against transgender people.

“When transgender people are mocked and portrayed inaccurately, as was done at the Bloomsburg Fair, it directly correlates to a transphobic culture that has killed at least 22 transgender and gender non-conforming people in the U.S. this year alone,” Matthews said in an interview.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.


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