BETHLEHEM, Pa. (WLVT) - For more than a month, Dr. Rachel Levine has been the face of Pennsylvania’s response to COVID-19, appearing in daily televised briefings as the state's health secretary.
Levine has often advised residents to "stay calm, stay home, and stay safe," reminding Pennsylvanians of the importance of following the state's guidelines.
"Your mask protects me against exposure to COVID-19, and my mask protects you," she said in a recent briefing.
Levine is one of the only public officials in the country who identifies as transgender. During her time in office, she's used her platform to advocate for trans rights.
"As an American woman, I have the right to equal protection under the law," she said at a 2018 Philadelphia rally. "Trans rights are human rights."
As Levine provides daily updates during the pandemic, she’s been the target of bigotry. Some people have shared pictures and written posts attacking her gender identity.
"It's wrong, it's nasty, and it's inappropriate," said Adrian Shanker, executive director of Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center in Allentown. "There's no place in public discourse for blatant transphobic bullying."
In response to the comments, people on social media have been sharing the hashtag #Respect4Rachel. Kate Schartel Novak, a Pennsburg woman who reigns as Mrs. Pennsylvania International 2019, is one of them.
"When I saw the hashtag, and I saw people who didn't normally expect to be using it, I thought, 'Wow, here's some progress,'" she said.
Schartel Novak, a former adviser of Southern Lehigh High School's Gay-Straight Alliance, said she was disappointed to hear about the attacks toward Levine.
"We have this face of the management of the crisis, who is just so calming and so rational and so wonderful during the briefings, and people are hung up on this part of who she is, rather than what she's doing," she said.
As COVID-19 brings Levine into the spotlight, Schartel Novak said it’s a chance for people to learn -- in more ways than one.
"When you start seeking information about the unknown, which is the virus, and then you're faced with another unknown -- 'Oh, my gosh, here's a trans woman in this position' -- you're almost forced to start looking at things that might make you uncomfortable," she said. "Then, as you learn more about it, and you come from that place of knowledge, it becomes less of your unknown and more of something that's comfortable to you."
Before she was Secretary of Health, Levine, a board-certified pediatrician, was Pennsylvania’s top doctor as Physician General.
"She's been a tremendous leader for public health," Shanker said. "She's led us through the opioid crisis and helped to reduce disparities in many different conditions that Pennsylvanians experience.”
Levine was one of the grand marshals of last year’s Lehigh Valley Pride festival, organized by Bradbury-Sullivan. Shanker said Levine is a "role model" for the community.
"Her historic presence is especially uplifting for transgender people who are seeing a trans woman leading us through this crisis," he said. "There's a difference between having a policy disagreement or a disagreement with how somebody is handling a crisis and resorting to transphobic language and bigotry to describe them.”
Transgender advocates say the response to the hate gives people a chance to unite and support Levine and the trans community as a whole.
"The #Respect4Rachel hashtag is about Pennsylvanians coming together, so that everybody can say that this public display of bigotry has no place in our public discourse," Shanker said.
"What I want people to really recognize more than anything, we've only ever known her as a 'she,' so please use those pronouns," Schartel Novak added. "Please refer to her as Dr. Rachel Levine [for] what she is doing and her role in the community."
Lehigh Valley Public Media reached out to Levine to be part of this report. A spokesperson said the secretary won’t address the negative comments and that her focus is on the "efforts and sacrifices of Pennsylvanians."