(The Center Square) – Gov. Tom Wolf criticized Bloomsburg Fairground organizers on Wednesday for enabling hate speech directed at Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine – the latest in what he considers a string of “vile” transphobic attacks against the state official.
The Columbia County venue came under fire after images of a man dressed as Levine sitting in a dunk tank to raise money for local fire companies appeared on the Bloomsburg Fair Association’s Facebook page over the weekend.
The since-deleted post included a caption alongside the photos that read “Dr. Levine? Thank you you were a hit and raised a lot of money for the local fire companies. Wonder why so many were trying to dunk you.”
Many commenters expressed outrage that fairground officials would openly mock Levine’s gender identity – a common theme accompanying much of the public criticism over her handling of the pandemic, Wolf said.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has brought hate and transphobia into the spotlight through relentless comments and slurs directed at Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine, who is a highly skilled, valued, and capable member of my administration and transgender,” he said. “The derogatory incident involving the Bloomsburg Fair is the latest of these vile acts, which by extension impact transgender people across the commonwealth and nation.”
Levine became the first transgender woman appointed to a Pennsylvania cabinet position in 2015 after serving as a leading pediatric physician at Penn State Hershey Medical Center for more than 20 years. The Massachusetts native graduated from both Harvard College and the Tulane University School of Medicine before completing a fellowship at New York City’s Mount Sinai Hospital in 1993.
But Levine’s extensive qualifications haven’t shielded her from hate speech and transphobic remarks, Wolf noted. During a conference call with reporters in May, Levine called out KDKA Radio talk show host Marty Griffin for repeatedly calling her “sir.” Griffin apologized, saying he was distracted during the call.
The incident prompted Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto to cancel an interview with the radio station the following day, citing the "bad behavior."
“Growing up, KDKA had good people who made us proud to be from Pittsburgh,” he said in the May 12 tweet. "Now, it shock-jocks, sensationalism & worse.”
Wolf’s statement on Wednesday describes Levine as “a distinguished and accomplished public servant” committed to protecting the health of all residents, even “those who direct hate-fueled attacks at her.”
“I’m proud of the work she has done in her five years serving Pennsylvanians, and her success at leading our commonwealth during the COVID-19 crisis is a testament to her intelligence and work ethic,” he said. “Hate has no place in Pennsylvania, even in the smallest transphobic joke, action or social media post.”
Bloomsburg Fair Association President Randy Karschner told the Times Leader that the dunk tank was not affiliated with the organization, but that the man inside – wearing a blonde wig, glasses and a floral print dress – was meant to resemble Marilyn Monroe, not Levine. It was only after carnival goers said the man looked Levine that he began to “play along,” according to a second local media report.
“On behalf of the Bloomsburg Fair Association Board of Directors, our sincerest apologies go out to Dr. Levine, our shareholders, our sponsors and others for this serious lapse in judgment,” the association said in a statement to the Times Leader. “The fair prides itself on celebrating the diversity and inclusion of all who visit the fairgrounds.”
“The Fair Board, staff, volunteers and partners will make it a priority to see that actions such as these never happen again,” the statement concluded.
Rafael Álvarez Febo, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on LGBTQ Affairs, derided the association's apology as disingenuous.
“The leadership of the Bloomsburg Fair knew they were catering to transphobic sentiments when they chose to impersonate Dr. Levine,” he said in a statement Wednesday. "Marginalized communities know when we are being targeted and will not be gas-lit into thinking this was just about Dr. Levine’s position as Secretary of Health.
“In times of crisis and pain LGBTQ individuals are united in pushing back against transphobia of any kind,” he continued. “Commissioners believe that the health and safety of Pennsylvanians should not be undermined due to these toxic and personal attacks.”
As for Levine herself, she’s not letting the incident distract from efforts to control the spread of COVID-19, telling reporters during a news conference Tuesday that she cares about the health of all residents, even the ones who don’t like her.
“I am going to stay laser-focused on protecting the public health in Pennsylvania,” she said.