Celebrating Pennsylvania's heroine of the pandemic: Dr. Rachel Levine | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Celebrating Pennsylvania's heroine of the pandemic: Dr. Rachel Levine

click to enlarge Celebrating Pennsylvania's heroine of the pandemic: Dr. Rachel Levine
Staying safe, staying calm: Dr. Rachel Levine, with a sign language interpreter, leading the March 31 COVID-19 Update
These are strange and uncertain days. Nothing that has happened in the last month or so has ever happened to us before, and we find ourselves suddenly navigating this unprecedented and markedly new way of life, for the most part, flying blind. But in the midst of chaos, a sound voice has emerged with a confidence and candor that Pennsylvanians can depend on in times of uncertainty: Dr. Rachel Levine.

The current Secretary of Health for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Levine is also a professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at the Penn State College of Medicine, and so when it comes to pandemic-related stuff, she certainly knows what she’s talking about.

Her Twitter feed has been a consistent thread of useful information; she retweets materials explaining everything from what exactly a stay-at-home order means to how we can reduce stress and improve mental health while simultaneously protecting our physical well-being. She’s a constant source for up-to-date statistics and figures showing the coronavirus infection rate in Pennsylvania, leading Governor Wolf's live daily broadcasts that brief us on its local impact, and giving us tips on when to seek medical care — and how to seek it without putting others at risk.

Secretary Levine manages to be honest without inciting fear. She’s realistic without inching toward pessimism. She’s hopeful without negating or ignoring the very real dangers of COVID-19. She breaks down complex and scary topics in a way that everyone watching or reading or listening can understand — in a way that allows facts to comfort rather than intimidate.

And she’s transgender.

As a trans person myself — I identify as transmasculine and non-binary — I can’t stress how important it is to me that one of my state’s historic leaders is “like me” in such a simple and fundamental way.

My relationship with my own transness is complex. I don’t want my queer identity to ever be the thing that defines me. I don’t ever want to get boxed in within my career, writing exclusively about queer topics because people see a label instead of a byline. I don’t want to be a token gay friend, or a footnote in someone’s story about how they can’t possibly be homophobic because they know a queer person.

One of the things that I respect so much about Secretary Levine is that she’s out and proud, and her warm and guiding leadership has not only been a constant comfort amid a deeply disturbing public health crisis, but she’s also giving other trans folks like me something to aspire to, to aim for, to admire.

Secretary Levine manages to be honest without inciting fear.

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I can count on one hand the times in my life I’ve seen a person “like me” in a position of leadership; for this reason, a lot of trans youth have a hard time envisioning for themselves a bright and sunny future beyond the stereotypes associated with their respective identities. Television depictions of queer folks often read more like caricatures than accurate assessments, and history tends to “straight-wash” the truth about LGBTQ+ leaders while Hollywood fetishizes queer bodies. But Rachel Levine is a brilliant medical professional, a talented leader, and, I think, the role model teenage me would have benefited from seeing the most.

In the midst of chaos and uncertainty on this Trans Day of Visibility, it’s remarkably meaningful that other queer young people — and queer adults, too — can watch someone who is “like them” lead a frightened population through these strange days with dignity, intellect, and grace.
Ollie Gratzinger is Pittsburgh City Paper's spring reporting intern. You can follow them on Twitter at @OGratzinger.