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Admiral Rachel Levine on transitioning mid-career and the importance of supportive colleagues

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Admiral Rachel Levine via HHS/Flickr

· 6 min read

At least 154 new anti-trans bills have been proposed across the US in 32 states so far this year, NBC News reported in March. And in the first week of April, Georgia and Alabama passed legislation targeting transgender youth and athletes, after similar measures were signed into law in Texas, Iowa, and South Dakota earlier this year. In most cases, the legislation focuses on preventing access to gender-affirming medical care or banning trans youth from sports that correspond to their gender identity.

In the workplace, transgender individuals continue to face discrimination, with a 2021 study from the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law noting that “43.8% of transgender employees reported experiencing verbal harassment at work, compared to 29.3% of cisgender LGB employees.” And a 2021 McKinsey report found transgender adults are twice as likely as cisgender adults to be unemployed.

The wave of legislation this year comes despite research showing that a majority of Americans support LGBTQIA+ rights. A recent Public Religion Research Institute survey found that 79% of people in the US favor laws that would protect LGBTQ people from “discrimination in jobs, public accommodations, and housing.” Public transgender visibility has also increased in recent years, with prominent celebrities like Laverne Cox and Elliot Page speaking openly about their gender identity. And on the federal level, the Biden Administration last year nominated Admiral Rachel Levine to the post of US assistant secretary for health for the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Levine is now the nation’s highest-ranking openly transgender official ever.

Levine began her career in public service in 2015 as physician general of Pennsylvania, and more recently served as Pennsylvania’s secretary of health. She has two children, is a “rabid” fan of the New England Patriots, and a staunch advocate for the LGBTQIA+ community, telling the Today show in 2020, “As an openly transgender woman and a proud member of our community, I hopefully educate people that LGBTQ people are here. We’re part of the community and we really try to work towards the common good.”

HR Brew recently spoke with Admiral Levine about her dedication to DE&I, coming out as transgender at work, and her view on the responsibility of employers to speak out against anti-trans legislation.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

What role, if any, did supportive HR leaders have, as you embraced your identity in your career? When I transitioned 10 or more years ago, that was at the Penn State College of Medicine, and at Penn State Hershey Medical Center. I did speak with HR, and I had a very strong advocate in the Associate Dean for Diversity at the College of Medicine. His name was Dr. Harjit Singh. We worked on and had a very complete policy, in regards to sexual orientation and gender identity at the College of Medicine…I was very fortunate that I was able to transition quite easily at the med center.

Together with Workday

Q for you: What makes your employees tick? Not sure? We’ve got just the thing: Workday’s latest employee expectations report found that employees place the most value on professional growth, flexible work, and belonging/diversity/inclusion. Learn what this means for your biz, as well as helpful actions you can take to boost employee engagement. It’s all here in Workday’s report.

I really felt as I talked with people, people understood that I was not just tolerated, and not even just accepted, but truly welcomed for the diversity that I brought [to] the medical center and to the College of Medicine.

Having comprehensive policies on the books about sexual orientation and gender identity, non-discrimination policies, is critically important for LGBTQI+ people in general and specifically for transgender individuals who are going to transition at work.

We don’t see a lot of out trans people in positions of power. And I’m wondering if you think that that’s really starting to change and how that will impact the next generation of folks in terms of embracing who they are? You know, it’s two things at the same time. While we’ve made so much progress for LGBTQI+ community. I really think that that’s true and I hope my appointment symbolizes progress, both in Pennsylvania and nationally, as does Secretary Pete [Buttigieg]’s nomination and confirmation. At the same time, we have a lot of challenges ahead and you can see that in the proliferation of the very negative actions and policies and laws that have cropped up in many states around the country, particularly in regards to trans youth and trans youth participation in activities or sports, as well as the accessibility of trans-affirming, gender-affirming care. And then the Florida  “Don’t Say Gay” law about just talking about these issues in schools.

So, at the same time that we’ve made a tremendous amount of progress—particularly with President Biden and Vice President Harris and this administration and our actions across the administration—there is a backlash that we’ll have to address.

Do you think employers should play a role in supporting employees during this time where there’s an uptick in anti-trans legislation? Yes. I think that it is important for businesses to stand up for diversity, equity, and inclusion. The vast majority of businesses vocally support diversity, equity, and inclusion, including for the LGBTQI+ community. I think that it is important and incumbent upon them to speak up when these laws are being considered and discussed.

I remember pushback in North Carolina and others when the “bathroom bills” were being considered. I think that companies and businesses have an impact. I think that governors and state legislatures do pay attention to what their businesses and companies say, and I think it is important for them to speak up when these laws are being discussed and considered.

What are you hopeful for in terms of representation, moving forward? I think the most important message is the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion for all communities in our nation. I’m such a strong supporter of that for businesses, for schools and universities, in education, in government, in health care, and in every setting. That includes creating not just a tolerant or accepting environment, but a welcoming environment, for all diverse communities, including the LGBTQI+ community. We have a president who supports us and sees us, and frequently articulates his support for the LGBTQI+ community, particularly his support for transgender individuals and trans youth. And I think it is important to support and empower our trans youth and our gender-diverse youth to be able to overcome the challenges that they face.—KP

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Email [email protected] or DM @Kris10Parisi on Twitter. For completely confidential conversations, ask Kristen for her number on Signal.

Together with Workday

Q for you: What makes your employees tick? Not sure? We’ve got just the thing: Workday’s latest employee expectations report found that employees place the most value on professional growth, flexible work, and belonging/diversity/inclusion. Learn what this means for your biz, as well as helpful actions you can take to boost employee engagement. It’s all here in Workday’s report.

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