Rachel Levine speaking

A Voice for Diversity in All Its Dimensions

Rachel Levine portrait

In recognition of International Transgender Day of Visibility, the MITRE Women’s Council presents a conversation with U.S. Assistant Secretary for Health Admiral Rachel Levine, M.D., the first openly transgender federal official. 

March 31 is International Transgender Day of Visibility—a day committed to raising awareness of the discrimination transgender people face and recognizing the contributions transgender people make to our society and around the world. It also marks the close of Women’s History Month.

To honor the intersection of these significant events, the MITRE Women’s Council presents a Q&A with Admiral Rachel Levine, M.D., assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the first openly transgender federal official.

Levine, a pediatrician, is also a four-star admiral in the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, a 6,000-member branch of the uniformed services she leads. USA TODAY recently named ADM Levine to its annual list of Women of the Year.

Cj Rieser, Ph.D., a working mom who leads the MITRE @ University of Virginia Health Site Learning Lab as a research professor in the UVA School of Medicine's Department of Public Health Sciences and a principal medical science & technology engineer, sat down with ADM Levine (via Microsoft Teams) to get her thoughts on the significance of her role, advocating for health equity, and what Yoda can teach us.

Below is an excerpt from the interview. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What would you want other cisgender and transgender women as well as non-binary people to know about this Women's History Month? And what is it like to be part of history as we build back a healthier nation and allies around the world, given the work you do in humanitarian response and emergency response?

A: Women are so critically important to our society. I said in a different setting that women are the change-makers, and I believe that. 

Women’s History Month is important as it recognizes the tremendous change and advances that women have produced in our society and our culture and for our nation—and that includes transgender women.

How does it feel to be validated in terms of part of history? You know, what we've learned in COVID-19 is that we are all interconnected. The decisions that each one of us makes impact our family, our community. It impacts our nation, it impacts the world. And so, we all have to work together for the common good.

Now, I'm a positive and optimistic person, and I understand the challenges before us. But I think that we can get past our differences as a nation, and we can move forward together. So that is my hope.

Q: How did your transition impact how you see improving medical access from marginalized communities?

A: It goes to the issue of health equity. And health equity is an absolute priority for Secretary [Xavier] Becerra. It's a priority for myself and in my office and across the Department of Health and Human Services.

There have been significant health disparities that many groups have faced in the United States, but particularly communities of color. The African American community. The Latinx community. The American Indian/Native Alaskan communities, but also the LGBTQI+ community has faced significant health disparities and barriers to access in many different aspects. So, what we want to do is work towards health equity for everyone in terms of the LGBTQI+ community.

You know the [HHS] Office for Civil Rights interpreted Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act that when it says, “you cannot discriminate on the basis of sex,” that includes sexual orientation and gender identity. So, it is the policy of HHS as it applies the Affordable Care Act to all of our different divisions that you cannot discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. So, I think that that's really, really important.

Q: How do you feel trans and gender-nonconforming youth feel seeing trans people like yourself in leadership roles? Can it help counteract some of the negatives our society is throwing at them?

A: I think that my goal is to be an advocate and a role model for LGBTQI+ youth, particularly for trans youth or gender-diverse youth. They can do anything that they put their mind to, they can be anything they want. And so, we want to make sure that all of our federal policies really advocate to, again, advance equity, diversity, and inclusion at all levels.

I think many people in the country fear the unknown. And gender identity and trans individuals or gender-diverse people are just beyond their experience—and people fear that. I have quoted in the past Yoda from Star Wars that “fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. And hate leads to suffering.” But I think that's true.

So, we need to build not just a tolerant society, but an accepting society and a welcoming society for diversity in all of its aspects, including for sexual and gender minorities. And so that's my vision. That's what we want to work towards, and that's what I'll be dedicating myself to.

as told to Cj Rieser

Our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning (LGBTQ+) community is diverse and strong but may be disproportionately at risk for mental health struggles because of the discrimination and prejudice they too often face. Trans individuals, as a marginalized and vulnerable sexual and gender minority, face additional discrimination and lack of social support.

The following resources are available for yourself and loved ones who are, or may think they are, LGBTQ+ and might be considering self-harm:

  • The Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention and mental health organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer & questioning (LGBTQ) young people
  • Trans Lifeline, trans peer support
  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, free, confidential crisis counseling 24 hours a day
  • Transhealth, independent and comprehensive trans healthcare center built to empower trans and gender-diverse adults, children, and families

MITRE’s benefits and programs help people achieve wellness on all fronts. We invite you to learn about our LGBTQ+ resources, communities of support, and benefits, including:

  • Employee Resource Councils
  • Included Health, an advocacy program that creates a superior healthcare experience for members of the LGBTQ+ community
  • Progyny, a leading fertility and family building solution

See MITRE’s 2022 Benefits Guide for more information.