Throughout the pandemic, state Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine has seen and heard insults and been directly confronted about her gender.
And throughout the pandemic, when asked for a response to antagonistic comments, Levine, who is transgender, has said she remains “laser-focused” on keeping the public safe.
Things went differently at a news conference Tuesday.
“I feel that I must personally respond to the multiple incidents of LGBTQ harassment and, specifically, transphobia directed at me that have been reported in the press,” she said.
Levine delivered a brief statement in the same matter-of-fact manner in which she delivers the regular updates about COVID-19.
“But I want to emphasize that while these individuals may think they are only expressing their displeasure with me, they are in fact hurting the thousands of LGBTQ Pennsylvanians who suffer directly from these current demonstrations of harassment,” she said.
In May, KDKA-AM's Marty Griffin apologized after he misidentified Levine's gender during a media conference call through the Pennsylvania News Media Association. In his apology, Griffin said the mistake stemmed from him doing two phone calls at one time.
A Butler Eagle reporter was also on that news call and witnessed Griffin's repeated use of “sir,” even after first being alerted to his doing so.
The Butler Eagle has removed defamatory statements made through comments on its Facebook posts targeting Levine's gender identification.
“We respect our readers' rights to disagree with the policies of state public officials like Secretary of Health Rachel Levine. However, we do not permit hate speech on our Facebook page or in our newspaper,” said Tammy Schuey, Butler Eagle general manager.
Sabrina Schnur of Herman said as a transgender woman, she too has experienced similar comments and treatment, especially when she served as an advocate locally through her now closed PFlag organization.
“I've had enough of my fair share of things happen to me,” Schnur said. “Usually, most people think of transgender people as sexual deviants. We usually don't get portrayed well in the media or anywhere else.”
One of the more common insults made in these comments is that Levine is “pretending” to be a woman.
To people issuing such comments, Levine responded Tuesday, not for her own sake, but for the greater good of the LGBTQ community, she said.
“To the perpetrators of these actions, if your apologies are sincerely given, then I accept your apologies. But an apology is the beginning, not the end of the conversation,” Levine said. “I call on you, and all Pennsylvanians, to work toward a spirit of not just tolerance, but a spirit of acceptance and welcoming toward LGBTQ individuals.”
Schnur said she had read and heard about the comments throughout the day Tuesday, and she felt it was a good time for Levine to stand up for herself.
“I'm glad she did,” Schnur said. “You're not going to change their mind, so there's not use even engaging in them. But you do have to stick up for yourself or people will walk all over you. It's a balancing act.”
Levine also specifically referenced young members of the LGBTQ community who have been potentially isolated during the pandemic from supportive people, groups or services.
Lyosha Gorshkov, assistant director of Slippery Rock University's Pride Center, said he is also concerned about younger LGBTQ members who may not have the support they need while in isolation.
“Mental health right now is very fragile,” Gorshkov said.
He said that some SRU students who are LGBTQ experience bullying or are harassed, sometimes even at home by their families. He said when the students come to campus, they have the relief of finding a fairly accepting place, where they can be themselves. “We have quite a disturbance in the progress,” Gorshkov said of the community's acceptance of LGBTQ members.
Gorshkov said his fear is the effect of the pandemic on people's mental health. He said despite the pandemic, the Pride Center has worked to try to reach the LGBTQ community through events held virtually and by being available to listen.
He said the goal of the Pride Center is to help LGBTQ people be more vocal, seen and involved on campus. He said it also provides them with ways to promote awareness, not only on campus and with fellow students, but also with faculty and staff.
“We provide them with tools for how to be a better advocate for themselves,” he said.
Like Gorshkov, Levine Tuesday encouraged people to advocate for themselves, moments before she reminded people that she would remain focused on keeping Pennsylvanians safe and healthy.
“To all LGBTQ young people, it is OK to be you. It is OK to stand up for your rights and your freedoms,” she said. “As for me … I have no room in my heart for hatred, and frankly, I do not have time for intolerance.”