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DNC hiring of minister disappoints activists

Gay Dem officials defend Harkins, who opposes same-sex marriage

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Derrick Harkins

‘My record clearly shows that I am a strong defender of the rights of all people, including LGBT people,’ Rev. Derrick Harkins told the Blade. (Photo courtesy of Nineteenth Street Baptist Church)

A minister opposed to same-sex marriage that the Democratic National Committee hired to reach out to people of faith says he’s a “strong defender” of the rights of LGBT people and supports civil unions for gay and lesbian couples.

But same-sex marriage advocates say support for civil unions over marriage is unacceptable for the Democratic Party and that the DNC could have chosen among a number of prominent ministers that support marriage rights for same-sex couples.

The DNC’s announcement in October that it had named Rev. Derrick Harkins, senior pastor of D.C.’s Nineteenth Street Baptist Church, to head its faith outreach program created an immediate stir when news surfaced that Harkins doesn’t support same-sex marriage and that he was incorrectly identified in 2009 as a supporter of D.C.’s same-sex marriage law.

“My record clearly shows that I am a strong defender of the rights of all people, including LGBT people,” Harkins told the Blade in an email exchange last week. “I consistently state, from the pulpit and elsewhere, that there is never a time when words or actions that dehumanize or marginalize any individual have a place in our life as a church and faith community.”

Observers in the religious press, including Christianity Today, have said Harkins is a generally progressive minister with strong ties to the Evangelical Christian community and black churches, attributes that could boost the Democratic Party’s standing with evangelical voters while shoring up support from black churches.

Although some LGBT advocates for same-sex marriage say they are disappointed and puzzled over the DNC’s decision to hire a same-sex marriage opponent for an important staff position, two prominent gay Democratic leaders have rallied to Harkins’ and the DNC’s defense.

Rick Stafford, chair of the DNC’s LGBT Caucus, and Brian Bond, former liaison to the LGBT community at the Obama White House and the current DNC national constituency director, released statements pointing to Harkins’ longstanding record of support on LGBT equality issues.

The two noted that while Harkins doesn’t support same-sex marriage, he supports full legal rights for same-sex couples through civil unions.

Stafford said in his statement, released by email, that it was Bond who “brought Rev. Harkins onboard at the DNC.”

In his own statement, Bond called Harkins “a progressive faith leader who supports the right of same-sex couples to equal benefits and equal protection under the law.”

Stafford, a longtime gay Democratic Party activist in Minnesota, said that “to mischaracterize Rev. Harkins’ views and demonize him as a roadblock to equality for LGBT Americans is not helpful to the ongoing effort of building coalitions in our journey to full equality.”

But a number of prominent LGBT advocates, including gay rights attorney Evan Wolfson, said the DNC’s decision to hire a minister opposed to same-sex marriage sends the wrong message to gays and their straight allies as the 2012 elections are fast approaching.

“The overwhelming majority of Democrats support the freedom to marry as do independents and growing numbers across the political spectrum,” said Wolfson, who heads the same-sex marriage advocacy group Freedom to Marry.

“The Democratic Party should be speaking out forcefully and forthrightly in support of the dignity and equality of all Americans and equal protection under the law, which includes the freedom to marry,” Wolfson said.

Asked if Rev. Harkins’ support for civil unions was an acceptable position for a DNC official, Wolfson said, “Does the reverend have a civil union?” When told that Harkins’ official biography says he’s married, Wolfson added, “Right, and for the same reason that marriage matters to people like him it matters to all of us, and that’s what equality does mean.”

DNC spokesperson Melanie Roussell, who said Harkins would not be available for a direct interview, arranged last week for Harkins to answer written questions submitted by the Blade.

When asked to explain his thinking on legal rights for same-sex couples, including civil unions versus marriage, Harkins suggested that his views were evolving.

“In my own journey, I am glad to be part of the ongoing dialogue that brings people of good will toward the goal of common ground, and to acknowledge that perspectives continue to change,” he said. “It’s worth noting that in the not too distant past, ‘traditional’ marriage was limited to same race, same religion, and same nationality. While theological debates may persist, the protections of the law, and the acknowledgement of the rights of same sex couples should be seen as just and fair.”

Roussell said Harkins could not respond to a question asking if he would support adding language to the Democratic Party platform next year backing same-sex marriage and calling on Congress to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which bans the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages performed in states that have legalized such marriages.

“It is inappropriate for any DNC staff member to comment on the party platform at this time,” Roussell said.

Harkins told the Blade in an email response that ministers he knows who supported the marriage bill pending before the D.C. City Council in 2009 “inadvertently” added his name to a list of clergy backing the marriage measure.

He said he was never contacted by members of D.C. Clergy United for Marriage Equality to confirm whether he supported same-sex marriage. That was the group that compiled the list of clergy backing the law.

“I am certain that my name was inadvertently moved to the ‘confirmed’ category,” he said.

The list shows Harkins as the 93rd clergy person to be added to the 2009 petition declaring, “God is love and love is for everyone. In this spirit we raise our voices in the struggle for the right and freedom to marry” for same-sex couples.

“I count a number of the signers of the petition as personal friends, and all of them as colleagues in ministry, and take no exception to the fact that my name may have been included in initial discussions about potential signers,” Harkins said.

“But my signing the marriage equality petition would have implicitly taken our church toward a position on the issue without the benefit of the extensive consideration, and ultimately, congregational approval that would be needed for a decision as significant as this,” he said.

Nearly 200 ministers, rabbis and other clergy that supported the same-sex marriage bill agreed to have their names placed on the petition.

The D.C. Council passed the same-sex marriage law in December 2009 and then Mayor Adrian Fenty signed it a short time later. It took effect in March 2010 after clearing a required review by Congress.

Rev. Cedric Harmon, a member of the steering committee of D.C. Clergy United for Marriage Equality and a leader among the city’s black clergy in support of the D.C. same-sex marriage law, said he was surprised and puzzled over Harkins’ assertion of opposition to same-sex marriage.

Harmon said he has known Harkins for many years and has worked with him on various progressive causes, including the development of sex education programs for the city’s historic black churches that called for acceptance of LGBT people.

“I know he personally had done a lot to move the conversation and dialogue around full equality forward, especially as it relates to sexual orientation and gender,” Harmon said.

John Aravosis, the gay rights advocate and publisher of America Blog was the first to report that Harkins’ name appeared on the 2009 list of clergy backing D.C.’s marriage law.

Aravosis took exception to Bond’s and Stafford’s assessment of Harkins, writing in an Oct. 28 posting that at least some in the LGBT community “were pretty upset that the Democrats would hire someone who doesn’t support our full and equal status as human beings.”

Lateefah Williams, president of D.C.’s Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the city’s largest LGBT political group, said the club has not taken a position on the DNC’s decision to hire Harkins. She said she had no immediate comment on the development.

Rick Rosendall, vice president of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, D.C., called the DNC’s action “a politically tone-deaf decision” that falls far short of what the Democratic Party should be doing in meeting its stated commitment to equality for all Americans.

“The Democrats are better overall than the Republicans by far, of course,” Rosendall said. “But that’s just not good enough. If the Democrats want gay voters to be strongly motivated in the coming election they need to stop being so hand-cringingly cautious in a way that this demonstrates.”

Rosendall said both the DNC and President Obama would gain more overall support in the 2012 election than they would lose by backing same-sex marriage. Obama has said he supports civil unions rather than same-sex marriage but that his position on the issue is evolving.

“It’s pretty clear to most folks who look at this that the people who are opposed to our equality are generally not going to vote for the president anyway,” he said.

Michael Cole-Schwartz, spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, said that while HRC is disappointed that the DNC’s new faith outreach director “is not a supporter of marriage equality, we recognize that Rev. Harkins is a strong supporter of many LGBT equality issues and we look forward to working with him on areas of mutual agreement.”

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12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Eric

    December 1, 2011 at 3:55 pm

    This guy doesn’t support LGBT rights, if he doesn’t support the fundamental right to civil marriage. There is no right to a civil union in this country, the federal government doesn’t even recognize the term.

    Rather, he supports using the force of law to implement his religious beliefs on an unpopular minority.

    Perhaps, the Democrats do need to lose a few elections to realize that the LGBT community will not always side with the lesser of two evils. They do after all, keep telling us to wait just a little bit longer, we may as well wait through a Republican administration. It not like the Democrats were willing to repeal DOMA, DADT (Obama has fired over 435 gays and lesbians, trans people still can’t serve in the military), or pass the ENDA when they had the White House and the largest majorities in Congress in a generation, so I don’t see much difference between the parties.

    • Peter the saint

      December 6, 2011 at 11:31 pm

      “Perhaps, the Democrats do need to lose a few elections to realize that the LGBT community will not always side with the lesser of two evils.” They already have. BOTH sides have. Again – and again – and again – and… Didn’t make a g-dam difference. As the saying goes: it’s the definition of insanity to continue doing the same thing over and over, with the same negative outcome. Makes no sense. Insane. Time for a REAL change (i.e. IN THE SYSTEM!) Fight for your rights to be heard 24/7.

  2. laurelboy2

    December 1, 2011 at 8:40 pm

    While I agree with Harkins’ position on gay marriage, I suspect he’s taken that position largely to pander to the majority opinion of African-Americans.

  3. Konrad

    December 2, 2011 at 3:46 pm

    Wolfson said, “Does the reverend have a civil union?”

    Wolfson needs to work on his grammer. ‘Reverend’ is not a noun.

    “It is inappropriate for any DNC staff member to comment on the party platform at this time,” /i>

    My God, a realization that these are staff position filled by people to implement the program determined by the elected officers of the DNC. Unlike a former LGBT DNC liaison who thought he had a paid fellowship to advocate for his private insights on the issues of the day.

    • Colin

      December 7, 2011 at 10:53 am

      Funny, I seem to remember that particular LGBT liaison’s HUSBAND was the one pontificating on the issues of the day, and not the staff member himself. You memory is conveniently fuzzy, Konrad.

  4. Peter the saint

    December 5, 2011 at 2:16 pm

    I have already pledged to myself that I will never vote for a democrat ever again. I pledge again. For many reasons, including the continued rise of The Surveillance State, NON-closure of Guantanamo, enactment of DOMA, etc etc etc. This issue shows again that the Dem Party is NOT a party that respects civil liberties. And marriage, ANY marriage, is a civil act, period. If some choose to make it a religious act for themselves, fine. But if the gov’t is involved in ANY way, then it is a civil act. In other words, even the Dem Party refuses to stop The Church from infringing on my equal rights under the law; they prefer to “outreach” to them… IN ORDER TO SECURE THEIR VOTES! You hypocrites… how many f-ing centuries does it take to admit that humanity has suffered under that, continues to suffer.

    I will never vote for a democrat ever again. I hope many will join me. Vote for yourself, if there’s no 3rd party on the ballot. I’m sick of this.

  5. Peter the saint

    December 5, 2011 at 4:52 pm

    Speaking out of both sides of his mouth: “The two noted that while Harkins doesn’t support same-sex marriage, he supports full legal rights for same-sex couples through civil unions.”

    Full legal rights is not achievable thru civil unions! You talk to people this way, like politicians, in complete duplicity, treat people like idiots, and then wonder why we throw our hands up in the air and give up on you?! Americans Deserve Better.

  6. Audrey Smith

    December 6, 2011 at 3:39 pm

    FULL FEDERAL EQUALITY IN ALL MATTERS GOVERNED BY CIVIL LAW should be in the platform or every last one of us Ls, Gs, Bs, Ts, Is and Qs should abandon the Dems and join the Green Party — which, by the way, DOES have full equality in its platform…

  7. Glen

    December 6, 2011 at 5:36 pm

    This is absolutely unacceptable.

    I am literally feeling LESS likely to support and contribute to the DNC now, even though I’ll continue to vote almost entirely for Democrats.

    Which is interesting because I just the other day set aside a DNC fund-raising mailing into my To-Do pile. Now I’ll be sending it back without a donation and a note as to why.

  8. Tomwins

    December 7, 2011 at 12:43 am

    I just sent a message to Obama, my reps that I will be leaving the Democratic Party. I have no interest in voting in the Demo Primaries (the only advantage that has kept me in the Party). I’m outa here. My message reads:
    I am leaving the Democratic Party. Over the past few decades I have become more and more disappointed in the Democratic Party’s ability to effect leadership and change. Today, I have learned that the DNC has appointed Rev. Derrick Harkins, to reach out to communities of faith. Yet Rev. Harkins does not support the civil right of gay people to marry. As a person of faith, I draw upon my connection with something greater than myself to stand for justice and equity. How can the DNC appoint a person whose faith does not call upon them to stand with the right of gay and lesbian people to have a civil marriage. It is not the business of religious organization to deny civil rights to citizens of the U.S. I belong to a faith organization whose ministers officiate at same-gender weddings in states where it is legal. We would like to have these marriages recognized by the federal government. But with organization like the DNC failing to stand with justice, equity, and civil rights that will not happen. So I am no longer contributing to the DNC nor am I interested in voting in the Democratic Primary. The Democratic Party does not represent me so why should I continue to provide support to it.

  9. Jerry Burton

    December 7, 2011 at 11:21 am

    I REALLY thought religion and goverment was supposed to be seperate, have we thrown that away to ?
    Simmple, do not support the DNC and re-think your support of the democratic party, I have, although there is not mch to chose from, at this point.

  10. Jerry Williams

    December 7, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    For those inclined, the National Atheist Party also has full equality in its platform.

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Utah

VIDEO: Utah deal promoted as national model for LGBTQ rights, religious liberty

Data finds state has 2nd highest support for LGBTQ rights

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(Screen capture via YouTube)

A new video from the premier LGBTQ group in Utah, challenging the idea LGBTQ rights must be at odds with religious liberty, promotes an agreement reached in the state as a potential model to achieve a long sought-after update to civil rights law at the federal level.

The video, published Friday by Equality Utah, focuses on a 2015 agreement in Utah between the supporters of LGBTQ rights and the Mormon Church to enact a compromise acceptable to both sides. The agreement by those two sides led to an LGBTQ civil rights law in the state, which has Republican control of the state legislature and the governor’s mansion.

Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, says in the video dialogue is key to achieving meaningful success, whether its among the people of Utah, a state legislature or lawmakers in Congress.

“When you are working with LGBT rights in a state like Utah, and you want to advance legal equality, you can’t do it without working with Republicans, with conservative, with people of faith,” Williams says.

Williams, speaking with the Washington Blade over a Zoom call, said the main audience for the video is people on “the center right and the center left” willing to listen to other side when it comes to LGBTQ rights and religious liberty.

“People that have the courage to reach out to each other, and sit down across from each other and say, ‘Hey look, let’s hammer this out,” Williams said. “That’s who my audience is.”

Not only did Utah enact non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people, but the state under a Republican governor administratively banned widely discredited conversion therapy for youth. When lawmakers proposed legislation that would ban transgender youth from competing in school sports, the proposal was scuttled when Gov. Spencer Cox (whom Williams called a “super Mormon”) said he’d veto it after it came to his desk.

Marina Gomberg, a former board for Equality Utah, is another voice in the video seeking dispel the narrative religious liberty and LGBTQ rights are in conflict.

“in order to protect LGBTQ people, we don have to deny religious liberty, and in order to provide protections for religious liberties, we don’t have to deny LGBTQ people,” Gomberg says. “The idea that we do is a fallacy that Utah has dismantled.”

In July, new polling demonstrated the surprisingly the Utah, despite being a conservative state, has the second highest percentage of state population in support for non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people. The data Public Religion Research Institute from 77 percent of Utah residents support LGBTQ people, which is just behind New Hampshire at 81 percent.

Tyler Deaton, senior adviser for the pro-LGBTQ American Unity Fund, said the Utah agreement demonstrates the possibility of reaching an agreement at the federal level once “second order” issues are put into perspective.

“The first order question has to be how are we winning the culture,” Deaton said. “Do people even want to pass the bill? And if they do, you then figure out the details.”

The American Unity Fund has helped promote as a path forward for LGBTQ non-discrimination at the federal level the Fairness for For All Act, legislation seeking to reach a middle ground on LGBTQ rights and religious freedom. Polling earlier this year found 57 percent of the American public back a bipartisan solution in Congress to advance LGBTQ civil rights.

Supporters of the Equality Act, the more established vehicle for LGBTQ rights before Congress, say the Fairness for For All Act would give too many carve-out for LGBTQ rights in the name of religious freedom. The Equality Act, however, is all but dead in Congress and has shown no movement in the U.S. Senate.

Skeptics of the Utah law would point out the law doesn’t address public accommodations, one of the more challenging aspects in the fight for LGBTQ rights and one or remaining gaps in civil rights protections for LGBTQ people in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year in Bostock v. Clayton County. As a result, it’s perfectly legal in Utah for a business owner to discriminate against LGBTQ coming as patrons.

Williams, however, shrugged off the idea the lack of public accommodations protections in Utah make the agreement in the state makes it any less of a model, making the case the spirit behind the deal is what matters.

“I think copying and pasting Utah’s law doesn’t work for lots of reasons,” Wililams said. “What’s most important is a model of collaboration because when you are sitting around the table with each other — Democrats and Republicans, LGBTQ people and people of faith — that’s when the transformation happens. That is when the mutual respect is really forged.”

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Venezuelan man with AIDS dies in ICE custody

Pablo Sánchez Gotopo passed away at Miss. hospital on Oct. 1

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Pablo Sanchez Gotopo, who was living with HIV/AIDS, died in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in Mississippi on Oct. 1, 2021. (Courtesy photo)

A Venezuelan man with AIDS died in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody on Oct. 1.

An ICE press release notes Pablo Sánchez Gotopo, 40, died at Merit Health River Oaks in Flowood, Miss., which is a suburb of Jackson, the state capital. The press release notes the “preliminary cause of death was from complications with acute respiratory failure, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), pneumonia, acute kidney failure, anemia and COVID-19.”

ICE said U.S. Border Patrol took Sánchez into custody near Del Rio, Texas, on May 17. He arrived at the Adams County Detention Center in Natchez, Miss., four days later.

“Upon arrival to an ICE facility, all detainees are medically screened and administered a COVID-19 test by ICE Health Service Corps (IHSC) personnel,” said ICE in its press release. “Sánchez’s test results came back negative.”

The press release notes Sánchez on July 28 received another COVID-19 test after he “began showing symptoms of COVID-19.” ICE said he tested negative, but Adams County Detention Center personnel transferred him to a Natchez hospital “for additional advanced medical care.”

ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations staff in its New Orleans Field Office, according to the press release, “coordinated with hospital staff to arrange family visitation” after Sánchez’s “health condition deteriorated.” Sánchez was transferred to Merit Health River Oaks on Sept. 25.

“ICE is firmly committed to the health and welfare of all those in its custody and is undertaking a comprehensive agency-wide review of this incident, as it does in all such cases,” says the press release.

Venezuela’s political and economic crises have prompted more than 10,000 people with HIV to leave the country, according to the New York-based Aid for AIDS International.

Activists and health care service providers in Venezuela with whom the Washington Blade has spoken in recent years have said people with HIV/AIDS in the country have died because of a lack of antiretroviral drugs. Andrés Cardona, director of Fundación Ancla, a group in the Colombian city of Medellín that works with migrants and other vulnerable groups, told the Blade last month that many Venezuelans with HIV would have died if they hadn’t come to Colombia.

The Blade has not been able to verify a Venezuelan activist’s claim that Sánchez was gay. It is also not known why Sánchez decided to leave Venezuela and travel to the U.S.

ICE detainee with HIV described Miss. detention center as ‘not safe’

Activists and members of Congress continue to demand ICE release people with HIV/AIDS in their custody amid reports they don’t have adequate access to medications and other necessary medical treatment.

Two trans women with HIV—Victoria Arellano from Mexico and Roxsana Hernández from Honduras—died in ICE custody in 2007 and 2018 respectively. Johana “Joa” Medina Leon, a trans woman with HIV who fled El Salvador, died in 2019, three days after ICE released her from a privately-run detention center.

The Blade in July 2020 interviewed a person with HIV who was in ICE custody at the Adams County Detention Center. The detainee said there was no social distancing at the privately-run facility and personnel were not doing enough to prevent COVID-19 from spreading.

“It’s not safe,” they told the Blade.

The entrance to the Adams County Detention Center in Natchez, Miss. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Elisabeth Grant-Gibson, a Natchez resident who supports ICE detainees and their families, on Wednesday told the Blade that she was able to visit the Adams County Detention Center and other ICE facilities in the Miss Lou Region of Mississippi and Louisiana from November 2019 until the suspension of in-person visitation in March 2020 because of the pandemic.

“Medical neglect and refusal of medical care has always been an issue in the detention center at Adams County,” said Grant-Gibson. “After the facilities were closed to public visitation, those problems increased.”

Grant-Gibson told the Blade she “worked with a number of families and received phone calls from a number of detainees, and I was told again and again that detainees were being refused the opportunity to visit the infirmary.”

“When they did visit the infirmary, they were given virtually no treatment for the issues they were presenting with,” said Grant-Gibson.

ICE in its press release that announced Sánchez’s death said fatalities among its detainees, “statistically, are exceedingly rare and occur at a fraction of the national average for the U.S. detained population.” ICE also noted it spends more than $315 million a year “on the spectrum of healthcare services provided to detainees.”

“ICE’s Health Service Corps (IHSC) ensures the provision of necessary medical care services as required by ICE Performance-Based National Detention Standards and based on the medical needs of the detainee,” notes the ICE press release. “Comprehensive medical care is provided from the moment detainees arrive and throughout the entirety of their stay. All ICE detainees receive medical, dental, and mental health intake screening within 12 hours of arriving at each detention facility, a full health assessment within 14 days of entering ICE custody or arrival at a facility, and access to daily sick call and 24-hour emergency care.”

An ICE spokesperson on Wednesday pointed the Blade to its Performance-Based Detention Standards from 2011, which includes policies for the treatment of detainees with HIV/AIDS.

A detainee “may request HIV testing at any time during detention” and ICE detention centers “shall develop a written plan to ensure the highest degree of confidentiality regarding HIV status and medical condition.” The policy also states that “staff training must emphasize the need for confidentiality, and procedures must be in place to limit access to health records to only authorized individuals and only when necessary.”

“The accurate diagnosis and medical management of HIV infection among detainees shall be promoted,” reads the policy. “An HIV diagnosis may be made only by a licensed health care provider, based on a medical history, current clinical evaluation of signs and symptoms and laboratory studies.”

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Rachel Levine on becoming four-star admiral: ‘It comes from my desire to serve’

Trans official sworn-in to U.S. Public Health Service

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For Rachel Levine, the appointment to her new role as a four-star admiral complementing her existing duties as assistant secretary for health is another way for the first openly transgender Senate-confirmed presidential appointee to serve.

“I think that this just really comes from my desire to serve in all capacities,” Levine said in an interview Tuesday with the Washington Blade. “To serve the first day in my field of academic medicine and pediatrics, but then in Pennsylvania and now in the federal government, and it furthers my ability to do that.”

Levine, 63, also recognized the importance of the appointment as a transgender person within the U.S. Public Health Service, for which she was ceremonially sworn in on Tuesday

“I think for the LGBTQ+ community, it is a further sign of progress and our president’s commitment to equity, to inclusion and diversity,” Levine said. “So I think that it is a very important milestone, and I’m pleased to serve.”

As part of her duties, Levine will lead an estimated 6,000 public health service officers serving vulnerable populations, including deployments inside and outside the country for communities beleaguered with the coronavirus, according to the Department of Health & Human Services. The role involves working closely with U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murphy, whom Levine called her “friend and colleague.”

The U.S. Public Health Service, Levine said, has deployed “many, many times,” including its greatest number ever of deployments to vulnerable populations during the coronavirus pandemic. Among the places the service has deployed, Levine said, was in her home state of Pennsylvania, where she recently served as secretary of health.

Not only is Levine the first openly transgender person to serve in the uniformed health service as a four-star general, but she’s also the first woman to serve in that capacity.

“We have 6,000 dedicated committed public servants really all focused on our nation’s health, and they serve in details to the CDC and the FDA and the NIH, but also clinically with the Indian Health Service, and the federal prison system,” Levine said. “They’re also detailed and deployed throughout the country, and they deployed like never before for COVID-19 as well as the border, as well as dealing with floods and hurricanes and tornadoes.”

Although the Public Health Service is primarily focused on addressing public health disasters within the United States, Levine said it has a record of deployments overseas, including years ago when it was deployed to Africa under the threat of Ebola.

Secretary of Health & Human Services Xavier Becerra had high praise for Levine in a statement upon news of taking on a leadership position in the service.

“This is a proud moment for us at HHS,” Becerra said. “Adm. Levine — a highly accomplished pediatrician who helps drive our agency’s agenda to boost health access and equity and to strengthen behavioral health — is a cherished and critical partner in our work to build a healthier America.”

Levine, however, was careful to draw a distinction between her appointment within the Public Health Service and being a service member within the U.S. armed forces.

“It is not a military branch, it’s not the armed forces: It’s a uniformed force, so it’s different,” Levine said. “For example, the Army, the Navy, our military, there are two other uniformed branches, and that is ours, the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and NOAA.”

The new role, Levine said, would complement her duties as assistant secretary for health. Although not only secretaries of health have been commissioned to take the uniform, Levine said she wanted to undertake that as part of her role in the Biden administration.

The two appointments were not simultaneous, Levine said, because of a general process she undertook, which was completed just this week.

It hasn’t been an easy road for Levine. During her Senate confirmation process, when she was hounded by anti-transgender attacks in conservative media and rude, invasive questioning by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on her gender identity.

Levine, however, said she hasn’t encountered any hostility regarding her new role (as of now) and shrugged off any potential attacks in the future and said the move is about her career “to serve and to help people.”

“I’ve continued that for our nation as the assistant secretary for health and this is just a further demonstration of my commitment to service,” Levine said. “I don’t know what others will say, but that’s the genesis of my wanting to serve in the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, and to place on the uniform.”

Levine’s new appointment comes shortly after a group of Democratic senators led by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) sent her a letter dated Sept. 30 calling on her and Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, assistant secretary for mental health and substance use, to issue new guidance for hospital or residential care on mental health needs of transgender people.

Asked about the letter, Levine said mental health issues are under the authority of Delphin-Rittmon and the two “will work together and we will respond.”

Specifically, the senators in the letter call on the Behavioral Health Coordinating Council, or BHCC, and experts in the field of adolescent trans care to offer guidance on best practices for inpatient mental health care among these youth.

Asked what the response will look like, Levine said, “We’re going to work on that.”

“We will be looking at what they’re asking for and the requirements, and we’ll talk with them and the stakeholders and we’ll look to issue appropriate guidance,” Levine said.

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