Dr. Rachel Levine, the nation’s most senior transgender official, made history again Tuesday by becoming the first openly transgender four-star officer across any of the country’s eight uniformed services.
Levine, the assistant secretary of health, was sworn in Tuesday as an admiral, the highest-ranking official of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, whose 6,000 uniformed officers are entrusted with protecting the nation’s public health. Levine’s appointment also made her the organization’s first female four-star officer.
“This is a momentous occasion, and I am honored to take this role for the impact I can make and for the historic nature of what it symbolizes,” Levine said in a speech at her swearing-in ceremony. “I stand on the shoulders of those LGBTQ+ individuals who came before me, both those known and unknown. May this appointment today be the first of many more to come, as we create a diverse and more inclusive future.”
Levine, a pediatrician who previously served as Pennsylvania’s health secretary, has spearheaded numerous efforts to combat public health issues, including the opioid epidemic, maternal mortality and childhood immunization. A graduate of Harvard College and Tulane Medical School, she has also written on medical marijuana and pediatric medicine. https://iframe.nbcnews.com/Hnx98sa?app=1
In heading the health corps, Levine will be in charge of deploying the country’s public health workers to respond to crises ranging from the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 725,000 Americans, to natural disasters such as flooding.
Levine said she was proud to follow in the footsteps of her father, who served in the Air Force during World War II, and other members of her family who are veterans.
“Just as they stepped up to defend our rights to freedom and liberty, I now follow in their storied tradition of service as I step up to defend the health of our nation,” she said.
Out of the eight uniformed services in the United States, including the Army, Navy and Air Force, the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps distinctly focuses on medical issues.
Levine made history in March when she became the first openly transgender federal official to be confirmed by the Senate. She was narrowly confirmed by a vote of 52-48, primarily along party lines.
Senior health officials lauded the historic nature of Levine’s appointment to the public health corps for the LGBTQ community, noting its particular significance during LGBTQ History Month, which is celebrated in October.
“Admiral Levine’s historic appointment as the first openly transgender four-star officer is a giant step forward towards equality as a nation,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement.
As the nation’s top transgender official, Levine has previously told NBC News that she will work to support the LGBTQ community, particularly transgender youth, saying “we have to protect those most vulnerable in our community.”
“The time is now for our country to continue to move the bar forward for diversity,” Levine said Tuesday. “And I am proud to wear this uniform and answer that call.”
Pride flags, which were created to promote unity, are being called political and divisive in some schools across the country. A recent example: An Oregon school board on Tuesday banned educators from displaying the flags.
“We don’t pay our teachers to push their political views on our students. That’s not their place,” a school board member in Newberg, Brian Shannon, the policy’s author, said at a recorded board meeting.
Several other school officials and students around the country have targeted LGBTQ symbols. A teacher resigned in Missouri last month after he was told to remove a rainbow flag from his classroom and that he couldn’t discuss “sexual preference” at school. Students at a high school near Jacksonville, Florida, were accused several weeks ago of harassing classmates in a Gay Straight Alliance club and stomping on pride flags. And in August, pride symbols were targeted at a high school near Dallas, where rainbow stickers were ordered to be scraped off classroom doors.
In most cases, administrators have said the LGBTQ emblems are divisive and “political.” LGBTQ students, parents and teachers affected by the bans contend that the new rules harm a vulnerable group of young people.
“Feeling safe should not be political,” said Victor Frausto, 16, a student at MacArthur High School in Irving, Texas, just outside Dallas.
“For me, when a teacher put up that sticker, it basically conveyed the message that ‘when you come in here, you will not be hated for who you love or what you identify as,’” said Frausto, who is gay.
The decision to ban the rainbow pride stickers sent a very different message, Frausto said.
“By seeing how those stickers were removed, you get the message that ‘I do not fit in here, I should not be here,’” he said.
Frausto, who is the president of his school’s Gay Straight Alliance, or GSA, said the rainbow stickers were removed overnight without warning.
He and other GSA members took it to the attention of their GSA sponsors, a group of teachers who had already received an email from the school district about the matter.
“While we appreciate the sentiment of reaching out to students who may not previously always had such support, we want to set a different tone this year,” read the email, which a teacher shared with NBC News.
The educators reassured the group that they would push for an explanation and fight to get the stickers back on classroom doors, Frausto said. But within the next several days, two teachers were escorted off campus, he said.
A spokesperson for the Irving School District declined to identify the teachers and, when asked about their alleged removals, told NBC News that the district “does not comment on employee-related matters.”
In response to the sticker removal, hundreds of students staged a class walkout last week. In a video posted Wednesday by the community-based journalism platform Smash Da Topic, students can be heard shouting, “Bring our stickers back!”
After the protest, the district defended the move in a statement as a way “to ensure that all students feel safe regardless of background or identity” by maintaining political impartiality.
Newberg administrators also cited political neutrality in defending their policy. After having come under fierce criticism for prohibiting pride and Black Lives Matter flags specifically, school board members broadened a ban last month to block educators from displaying all symbols that the board deemed “political, quasi-political or controversial.”
“Their place is to teach the approved curriculum, and that’s all this policy does, is ensure that’s happening in our schools,” Shannon, one of the seven school board members who spearheaded the policy, said at a livestreamed board meeting Tuesday night.
The Newberg City Council and the Newberg Education Association, a union representing 280 educators and staff members in the district, have denounced the policy, and the Oregon State Board of Education has asked for it to be revoked. Community members have also petitioned to recall Shannon.
“As a gay man with no children and no real desire to have children, I feel like I should never know the names of the people on the school board, let alone have to stand up against them,” said Zachary Goff of Newberg, who launched the petition, which has gotten over 1,000 signatures.
“I think I speak for a lot of people in my community, but we can’t sit here and let this happen,” Goff added. “They picked a really bad town to be the guinea pig.”
Chelsea Shotts, 29, who is bisexual and works at an elementary school as a behavioral interventionist in the school district, said her mental health has deteriorated since the district introduced the policy over the summer.
“If I only cared about myself, I would just quit — like, easily quit and leave,” Shotts said. “But the thing is I’m in Newberg and I’m in Dundee because I love these students, and they deserve everything.
“I would rather be able to stay here and keep doing the work instead of being attacked by a culture war that four board members started,” Shotts added.
School administrators aren’t the only people who have gone after pride flags and LGBTQ symbols this school year.
Police in Blacksburg, Virginia, are investigating several thefts of pride flags outside a Virginia Tech religious center. In one case, the LGBTQ symbols were replaced with two Confederate flags. And in Georgia, a high schooler was charged last month with attackinganother student draped in a pride flag in a school cafeteria.
Advocates have long been warning educators about the disproportionate rates of bullying, harassment and mental health issues plaguing LGBTQ youths.
A survey this year by The Trevor Project, an LGBTQ youth suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization, found that 42 percent of the nearly 35,000 LGBTQ youths who were surveyed seriously considered suicide within the last year. More than half of transgender and nonbinary youths who were surveyed seriously considered suicide, it also found.
A separate survey conducted by The Trevor Project last year found that LGBTQ youths who reported having at least one LGBTQ-affirming space also reported lower rates of attempting suicide.
Beth Woolsy, who is bisexual and has two LGBTQ children who attend school in Newberg, said the harrowing numbers weigh on her as she sends her kids back to school every day.
“When we understand that it’s truly life and death that we’re talking about as we send our kids to school, and then they’ve taken away the safety of knowing who they can go to and who they can expect to advocate for them, it is really scary,” she said.