‘Don’t Make Assumptions’ on Gender Identity

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Secretary of Health and Physician General Rachel Levine discussed adolescent health, sexual orientation and identity at Congregation Rodeph Shalom. | Eve Miller

Gender nonbinary. Genderqueer. Gender nonconforming. Intersex. Agender. Pansexual.

Terms that may have been unfamiliar to the everyday lexicon of identity 10 years ago but are increasingly accepted in mainstream conversation were the subject of a discussion about adolescent health, sexuality and gender identity at Congregation Rodeph Shalom on April 8.

The conversation was led by Rachel Levine, secretary of health and physician general of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, who shared her own experience not only working with adolescents through Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital but also her personal story of transitioning from male to female in her 40s.

She joined a panel discussion afterward moderated by Phoenix Schneider of Jewish Family and Children’s Service featuring other voices from the community.

Those included Candice Chaplin, whose son transitioned at age 6; Hazel Edwards and Luis Ramírez from The Attic Youth Center, which serves LGBTQ youth; and Shane Rubin, a transgender activist who spoke about medical care access and education.

One key lesson emerged from the lively and educational discussion attended by about 120 people of different ages.

“Don’t make any assumptions about people,” Levine said more than once.  

Levine started by looking beyond the commonly used LGBT acronym, specifically unpacking the meanings behind LGBTQQIAAPP. “Most people get lost in the alphabet soup,” she said.

The Qs include questioning and queer — a term that has expanded beyond the shudder-inducing effect it had in the ’80s, as she mentioned.

“Queer has really been taken over and incorporated by the community as an umbrella term, as a very positive umbrella term,” she said. “And many, particularly young people, will proudly identify themselves as queer — so old people, like me, just have to get used to that.”

She sought to explore three concepts throughout the discussion: gender role, sexual orientation, and gender identity and expression — they are all different, she noted.

She differentiated what it meant to be transgender and cisgender and the fixed notion of gender in society.

“I know that for 99.7 percent of the people in the world, gender is a fixed star in your universe,” she said. “You might question many things in your life. You might question your family. You might question your school. … But you don’t question your gender.”

Not for her, however. She shared her memory reading a Superboy comic book at age 5 in which Superboy encounters an alien female who makes him Supergirl and Clark Kent into Clara Kent.

“I remember reading that and going, ‘That’s what I want,’” she said. “It has always been a splinter in my brain that my gender was wrong.”

She compartmentalized it, she said, and went on to college and medical school but it was in her head until she turned 40.

“Boy, did I have a tough mid-life crisis,” she joked.

However, she noted, that pointed to the binary of male and female, constraints that are largely disappearing.

“The brave new world of gender, particularly for young people, are individuals who do not accept that binary of male or female in any way,” she said.

She talked about growing up with the idea that something was different but couldn’t articulate it, and the struggles she faced — like many do — growing up as an adolescent.

She grew up in the greater Boston area and attended an all-male prep school; “I had a very interesting 35th reunion,” she joked.

But, deflating assumptions, she loved going to that school. She was a linebacker on the football team and a goalie on the hockey team. “It’s amazing how much you work to conform, to fit in,” she noted.

She went on to Harvard College as a biology major and then to Tulane University School of Medicine before training at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in pediatrics and adolescent medicine.

“Moving from 80th and First in Manhattan to rural, central Pennsylvania was by far the biggest transition I’ve ever had in my life, which is saying something because I’ve had a few transitions,” she said to laughs.

She talked about being embraced by the community — something Heshie Zinman noted is key for adolescents today.

The conversation was meant to look at “the unique needs that transgender youth or gender nonbinary youth have with regards to communal and familial acceptance,” said Zinman, chair of pRiSm at Rodeph Shalom.

“This is really a program — the first in what we hope will be a series of programs — to talk about this population and why it’s so critical that these kids have the support of their families and their communities,” Zinman said. “I hope that people walk away with a better understanding of the issue and a sense of wanting to learn more.”

The panel discussion explored such topics as advocacy, making schools safer spaces (like universal bathrooms), the violence and bullying the community faces, mental health with particular emphasis on the trans community, and how to be better allies.

For some, the event had personal significance. Amy Steerman noted her 12-year-old son is quite independent and experiments with his style and hair color, which she assumed meant something.

“What this did for me was to help me think about how there’s this fluidity among this generation, much more acceptance among each other,” she said, “and also I just need to step back and accept him as he expresses himself.”

“This is an issue that’s critically important,” said Deborah Gordon Klehr. As executive director of the Education Law Center, which ensures access to quality education for students across Pennsylvania, she noted it serves students who are LGBTQ and gender nonconforming.

“Adolescent health and how we accept and treat and provide access to students is critically important,” said the Rodeph Shalom member. “So it was great to hear from Dr. Levine and the panel about how we can be better supportive of the needs of the community.”

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1 COMMENT

  1. Dr. Levine is living proof that LGBTQ individuals are not “sick” or “sinners,” as some people believe. People who are still living in the Dark Ages will come away with a different point of view after hearing her speak.

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