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Advocates eye immigration, ‘tax’ parity in next Congress

Plans surface for incorporating LGBT language in non-LGBT bills

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Jerrold Nadler, U.S. House of Representatives, congress, gay news, Washington Blade
Jerrold Nadler, U.S. House of Representatives, congress, gay news, Washington Blade

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), one of the strongest allies of the LGBT community in Congress, is optimistic about possible advances for LGBT equality in Congress next year. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

With free-standing LGBT supportive bills having little or no chance of passing in Congress next year due to the Republican-controlled House, advocates are developing plans to push for inserting LGBT-supportive language in broader, non-gay bills that enjoy bipartisan support, according to Capitol Hill insiders.

One bill under consideration for inclusion in a broader, non-LGBT measure is the Uniting American Families Act, which would provide equal immigration rights to foreign nationals who are same-sex partners of American citizens.

Another bill under similar consideration is the Tax Parity for Health Plan Beneficiaries Act, which would allow domestic partners to obtain the same tax exemption for health insurance and other health benefits provided by employers that married opposite-sex couples now enjoy.

“There are lots of ways you can do this,” said Allison Herwitt, legislative director of the Human Rights Campaign, which is mapping strategy for LGBT-supportive legislation in the 113th Congress, which convenes in January.

“You can do it in committee. You could try to get it put in the bill as the bill is being written,” Herwitt said. “It’s always better to have the pro-equality language that we want put in the bill before it gets to the floor because it’s easier to protect your language from being stripped than it is to affirmatively add language.”

Herwitt and representatives with other LGBT advocacy groups say that despite the positive developments for the LGBT community in the Nov. 6 election, the makeup of Congress has remained largely the same in terms of the support for at least seven LGBT related bills.

Among them is the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, which calls for banning employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and the Respect for Marriage Act, which would repeal the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA. DOMA defines marriage under federal law as a union only between a man and a woman.

Steve Ralls, a spokesperson for the national LGBT group Immigration Equality, said the group is “highly optimistic” that the Uniting American Families Act will pass in the first half of next year as part of a broader immigration reform bill.

Ralls notes that President Obama, most Democratic lawmakers, and some congressional Republicans support an immigration reform measure. With the Hispanic vote going overwhelmingly to Obama and Democratic congressional candidates in the election two weeks ago, Republican leaders are much more likely to go along with a comprehensive immigration bill that’s strongly supported by the U.S. Latino community, Ralls said.

He said Immigration Equality is confident that the Senate, under the leadership of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, will support the inclusion of language from the Uniting American Families Act in an immigration reform bill.

“I am very hopeful that by next summer we could have a very significant win on this,” Ralls said.

Herwitt said she is similarly hopeful that the House and Senate will go along with including the tax parity measure for employer health benefits aimed at same-sex partners within a tax-related bill expected to come up next year.

R. Clarke Cooper, president of the Log Cabin Republicans, has said an LGBT-related bill most likely to gain Republican support in Congress is one that would redress unfair taxation on Americans, including LGBT Americans.

While HRC and Immigration Equality expressed optimism over the strategy of seeking to add gay bills to broader non-LGBT legislation, gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who’s retiring from Congress in January, said he’s far less optimistic about the prospect of any LGBT legislation while Republicans control the House for at least the next two years.

“The Republicans continue to be opposed to everything,” he told the Blade. “Look at the Republican platform. We certainly can block any negative stuff they may try to do,” he said.

“But with the Republicans controlling the House there’s zero chance of anything good happening…They’re negative on everything. They voted 98 percent against us on everything that came up,” he said. “They voted 90 some percent to reaffirm the Defense of Marriage Act. So there’s zero chance of them allowing anything.”

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), one of the strongest allies of the LGBT community in Congress, while agreeing that the GOP majority in the House remains “fiercely opposed to LGBT rights,” is optimistic about possible advances for LGBT equality in Congress next year.

“On the heels of tremendous momentum nationally – with the recent victory of marriage equality in four states, the president’s explicit support for LGBT rights, the tide of federal court cases backing equal protection for LGBT Americans, and a rapidly growing acceptance of the LGBT community – we have a great deal of validation to take with us into the 113th Congress,” Nadler said in a statement to the Blade.

Nadler said he, too, is optimistic about the prospects passing the gay immigration and tax parity measures as part of broader bills.

“We must prepare to work together, with Democrats and our GOP allies, to use every tool available to us to advance pro-equality legislation now,” he said.

HRC’s Herwitt, however, points out that the breakdown in the House between LGBT supportive and anti-LGBT members in the 113th Congress will make it difficult to pass LGBT legislation in any form.

“If you look at the makeup of the 113th Congress, they are going in with about 225 members who are solidly anti-LGBT,” she said, noting that most in this group are Republicans but some Democrats. About 184 House members, most Democrats, are supporters of LGBT equality and are expected to vote for LGBT bills, Herwitt said.

The remaining 26 are “in the middle,” with HRC and congressional allies uncertain how they will vote.

With 218 being the magic number needed to pass a bill, an amendment, or a discharge petition that could force GOP House leaders to bring a bill to the floor for a vote, LGBT advocates are not too far away from reaching that number, Herwitt and other advocates said.

But even if they were to convince House GOP leaders to allow an LGBT bill like ENDA to reach the floor for a vote, supporters don’t think they have the votes now to pass such a bill.

“Clearly, what we need to do during these next two years is work like hell to change the hearts and minds of the voters to make sure we have the support we need in the next election in 2014,”said Maryland transgender rights advocate Dana Beyer.

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6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Laura

    November 17, 2012 at 6:40 am

    In the House of Representatives the hard right conservatives continue to be negative on everything put in front of them except supporting defense spending, DOMA and tax breaks for millionaires. Then write LGBT legislation into some of their most cherished bills. Defense authorization bills are certainly open to additions.

  2. Dave Francis

    November 18, 2012 at 4:02 am

    LEAST WE FORGET THE THOUSANDS SLAUGHTERED BY ILLEGAL ALIENS ANNUALLY.

    Over the first two year period, Nov. 4, 2012 will mark the National Remembrance Day for those killed by illegal migrants and immigrants. The National Remembrance Day was conceived by the Tea Party Immigration Coalition (TPIC) and last year, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) announced his sponsorship of a declaration making the first Sunday of every November the day we honor those Americans killed by illegal aliens. These numbers are in the hundreds of thousands, from drunken drivers, female assaults to child molesters. These daily occurrences hardly ever hit the headlines, because the Liberal media suffocates the facts to the general public. For far too long, we have sat around and watched as our fellow citizens die every year at the hands of illegal aliens, while our elected officials simply ignore the ever-growing crisis. The federal government does not keep comprehensive statistics (may be intentionally) on the number of crimes committed in this country by illegal aliens. On November 3, Rep. King, stood in silence just outside the Capitol building with Congressman Walter Jones, activists Jeff Lewis and TPIC founder John Stahl stood alongside Jamiel Shaw Sr.( a California athlete shot because he was dressed in the wrong colors) and Ray Tranchant My 16-year-old daughter, Tessa, was killed by a drunken illegal alien in Virginia Beach three years ago while sitting at a stop light (both of whom lost their children to the uncontrolled and even murderous actions of illegal aliens) and said:

    “These are real human misery stories, where there's real hurt and real agony going on a daily basis in the United States of America, and we treat it as if it's just some kind of acceptable disruption of our lives. It's not. It's an interruption of innocent lives that takes place because we have years of administrations that refuses to enforce immigration law.” Even before the Obama administration little was done to cauterize the murderous rampage of foreign nationals in our nation. For those lost, there are no wreath-laying ceremonies, no flag lowering or community congregations. For those families who are left behind truly suffer in silence. Perhaps if one of the immediate family members of politicians was slaughtered on the highway, or one of their children disappeared or a spouse was attacked, then they would expedite the right laws to stop these hideous travesties. Let us see how quick Democrat majority leader Harry Reid would fly into legislative action if on a Nevada highway he was holding in his bloody hands his injured daughter or GOP speaker of the House John Boehner, that one of two daughters was assaulted in Cincinnati, Ohio.

    BEFORE PRESIDENT OBAMA PUSHES A PATH TO CITIZENSHIP FOR ALL ILLEGAL ALIENS ALREADY HERE, WITHOUT THESE POLICIES. THEN BE PREPARED TO BE PAY MORE TAX MONEY AND EVEN BE AWARE OF A GUARANTEED ONSLAUGHT FROM ACROSS THE WORLD OF OUR LAX ENFORCEMENT IMMIGRATION SYSTEM?

    BEFORE ANY PASSAGE OF IMMIGRATION REFORM FINDS ITS WAY THROUGH THE COMATOSED CONGRESS, TWO BILLS ARE A ESSENTIAL TO EVENTUALLY STOP THE INGRESS OF ANY MORE FLOWS OF HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS. 1. THE LEGAL WORKFORCE ACT CONTAINING MANDATORY E-VERIFY AND HALT ILLEGAL ALIENS TAKING JOBS AND HOLDING EMPLOYERS ACCOUNTABLE. 2. A SIMPLE AMENDMENT TO END THE BIRTHRIGHT CITIZENSHIP BILL TO STEM THE INFLOW OF SMUGGLED BABIES EITHER UNBORN OR AS AN INFANT, INTO THE UNITED STATES TO GAIN INTENTIONAL RIGHTS TO BE A CITIZEN AND A MASSIVE FINANCIAL BURDENING THE U.S. TAXPAYER. 3. THE REINTRODUCTION OF FORMER PRESIDENT BUSH 2006 SECURE FENCE ACT IN ITS ENTIRETY. THIS IS A DOUBLE PARALLEL FENCE STRETCHING ALONG THE BORDER OF THE U.S STATES AND ITS SOUTHERN NEIGHBOR. AMERICA MUST REDUCE SANCTUARY CITIES, CHAIN MIGRATION, DREAM ACT LAWS AND THE ILLEGAL ALIEN INVASION. 4. A FEDERAL GOVERNMENT ISSUED PICTURE ID CARD, WHICH CONTAINS INFORMATION TO USE IN PROVING WHO YOU ARE?

    • beki

      November 18, 2012 at 2:17 pm

      appologies for my ignorance, but what does this have to do with equal LGBT rights?

    • Gabriel

      November 19, 2012 at 11:06 pm

      You are acting as if only illegal immigrants commit these crimes. There being no illegal immigrants will not remove the fact that people are killed in accidents or through homicide or what have you. It is not as if these people don’t get punished for the crimes they commit, they get caught, and sent to prison and then deported. I don’t understand what else you want. It is impossible to completely halt illegal immigration, unless you have some magical barrier to block immigrants, walls don’t cut it — unless you want to waste billions on having hundreds of thousands of troops stationed at the border patrolling the entire area; I think we can agree that there are more serious threats the U.S. has to worry about.

      I don’t think you realize how much the U.S. economy relies on illegal immigrants. The reason you can afford to buy food and other products is because there are illegal immigrants who do this work for pay well below minimum wage. Of course we don’t want there to be illegal immigrants period, it’d be nice to have everyone be a citizen and such, but that would drive inflation through the roof.

      I think your comment is fueled by an irrational fear. I’m sure that when you say illegal immigrant your talking about Mexicans in particular, when in fact there are plenty of illegal immigrants from Asia and Europe as well as from other parts of the world. You honestly have nothing to fear. These people can’t really take your job, because really, do you want to work at McDonalds, in a field picking tomatoes, or in construction? Think about it. Of course if there was some magical influx of skilled labor coming into the country then, yeah, of course you should be scared.

      Saying that illegal immigrants increase crime is simply inaccurate. Crime was here well before the influx of immigrants from Mexico and other parts of the world. The reason you may think that many of them are part of this criminal world is that a lot of these immigrants are illegal, yes, and so they do not have rights or the ability to find a real job. A lot of them fall into crime because it is the one of the only ways they can make a living. Of course I don’t want these people to be criminals, and I’m not saying it is ok for them to be. I’m simply saying that if there was a way for normal working class people to be naturalized that maybe there wouldn’t be this connection between illegal immigrants and crime. Maybe we should be looking for ways to work with the 11+ million illegal immigrants already here instead of trying to figure out a way of getting rid of 11 million people, which is a massive and impossible undertaking. Of course people are going to commit crimes if they are disenfranchised, did you expect people to just come here and be happy with being payed 3 dollars an hour for work and be able to survive off of that without any possibility of advancement?

      This country is completely made up of immigrants. There is no such thing as not being an immigrant or not being part of a family that immigrated to the U.S. at some time (except if you’re Native American). This whole cycle of being afraid of immigrant influx has repeated itself time and time again, with the Chinese, the Irish, Southern and Eastern Europeans, Jews, Russians, and now it is another group. The only thing that has changed is that now it is a lot harder to become naturalized.

      These so called illegals use to come here only to work and then would return to their countries, but now they stay. This is mostly due to U.S. law, something you may have heard about, NAFTA. A lot of these immigrants coming from Mexico are former farmers and people who worked on farms. NAFTA destroyed the Mexican agricultural industry, especially the corn industry, because of the huge influx of cheap American corn into Mexican markets. These people were left without work and they had no means of getting a better education to find better employment in their home countries, so they came here to stay permanently to work in the same industry they knew, agriculture.

      I hope I’ve been able to shed some light on this topic, amazingly without the use of caps lock.

      Just remember. These are people. They may not be American citizens, but they are human beings, not cattle. If you treated them like human beings maybe we wouldn’t be debating this right now.

      Oh, and nobody was slaughtered. People weren’t hung in a butchers shop and cut up for sale. Try to use appropriate vocabulary and avoid being too overly dramatic, being dramatic just makes you look less credible and fanatical.

    • JRS

      November 20, 2012 at 5:34 pm

      To Dave Francis – really sorry for your loss. I am sure there are many such stories, but hundreds of thousands? In how many years? I doubt that drunk illegal immigrants accounts for even a minor fraction of the drunk Americans who kill other Americans every year. This is probably why the media does not highlight those cases. Under Obama, immigration has been tougher than under any recent president. Under Bush, illegal immigration soared. Please read the facts. And, yes, deaths caused by illegal immigrants has nothing to do with this article and the need to be fair to gay couples who have foreign spouses.

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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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