A weekend fundraiser for fire companies in north-central Pennsylvania featured a transphobic booth mocking Pennsylvania health secretary Dr. Rachel Levine.
The Columbia/Montour Fireman’s Relief Carnival at the Bloomsburg Fair grounds was designed to raise money for a half-dozen fire departments serving communities around Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania – about 130 miles northwest of Philadelphia.
The two day event, which began Friday, July 17, featured food, bands, fireworks, classic cars and more. It was a dunk tank, however, that quickly caused tempers to boil over.
In since-deleted photos shared on the Bloomsburg Fair's Facebook page, a male dunk tank participant could be seen dressed as Levine. The post's text said:
"Dr. Levine? Thank you you were a hit and raised a lot of money for local fire companies. Wonder why so many were trying to dunk you. Thanks everyone that came out to support our local fire companies."
The bearded man was wearing a dress and blonde wig — the same color hair as Pennsylvania's health secretary, Dr. Rachel Levine.
Levine, a well-regarded pediatrician by training, is transgender and in addition to heading up the commonwealth's public health efforts, acts as the chief medical officer overseeing the state's coronavirus response. She is one of the highest-profile trans individuals in public office.
As the person guiding Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf's decision-making on the COVID-19 pandemic, Levine has been a frequent target of ire from residents upset over shutdowns and restrictions like mandatory face mask mandates. Some of the criticism has included personal attacks on her gender identity.
Messages left with Bloomsburg Fair representatives were not answered. The fair office's voice mailbox was full and the main email address was deactivated. A Facebook message was marked as "seen," but NBC10 has yet to receive a response.
Breaking news and the stories that matter to your neighborhood.
An unidentified member of the Lime Ridge Fire Company, one of the beneficiaries of the fundraiser, said the volunteer group had nothing to do with the exhibit.
Fair officials provided a statement to FOX56, a local TV affiliate in the region, saying it was not a "commentary on Dr. Lavine’s [sic] transgender identity." Dr. Levine's name was misspelled throughout the statement.
"The Bloomsburg Fair and the sponsors of the event do not endorse any comments which arose subsequent to the event which disparage Dr. Lavine’s transgender identity or any other discriminatory comments," the statement went on to say.
At a news conference on Tuesday, Bloomsburg Fair president Randy Karschner apologized.
“A fellow dressed up in a dress to get people to throw balls at the dunk tank to raise money. It turned into where people thought we were offending Dr. Rachel Levine, and that was no intention at all,” said he said.
The Press Enterprise newspaper serving Bloomsburg identified the man in the photos as Main Township Fire Chief David Broadt. He told the paper he was "going for a Marilyn Monroe look," but played along when someone asked about him not wearing a face mask.
“It was just in fun,” Broadt told the newspaper. “It wasn’t done to disrespect her.”
Calls to the volunteer fire company were not answered.
The dunk tank and post were met with swift condemnation online from the public and LGBTQ rights groups. Some people said they plan to boycott the Bloomsburg Fair in September.
In a lengthy social media post, the PA Equality Project demanded the Bloomsburg Fair issue an apology.
"After you deleted that post, I know you might assume that very little harm was done but I assure you that you have caused irreversible damage. Our community knows that some people will hate us just because we are LGBTQ. For us adults, we’ve grown to accept it and adapt; though admittedly, we shouldn’t have to adapt to be treated as equals. But if you want to be considered family friendly, you have to be accepting of all families, not just some. You have to be an example to our kids that hate has no place in Pennsylvania," wrote Matt Haslam, the group's Interim Vice President.
Transphobia is attributed to higher rates of suicide among transgender youth and violence against trans adults. (You can learn more about the transgender community and issues through guides produced by the National Center for Transgender Equality.)
The transphobic attacks on Levine have become frequent enough recently that Pennsylvania's Commission on LGBTQ Affairs released a statement in June denouncing transphobia statewide.
"[Levine's] leadership has been met with some of the most vile and toxic transphobia our Commission has seen in our commonwealth in recent years. Week after week, members of the LGBTQ community and thousands of Pennsylvanians have tuned in to be informed by our Health Secretary only to be assaulted by streams of comments and slurs aimed directly at Dr. Levine and indirectly at all transgender Pennsylvanians. Whether a member of the media is misgendering her or social media comments are lobbed her way, we admire how Dr. Levine has shown poise and the highest degree of professionalism," the statement read in part.
Maggi Mumma, Deputy Press Secretary for the Pa. Department of Health, on Tuesday pointed to the commission's statement when asked for comment about the dunk booth.
"Dr. Levine always serves at the pleasure of the Governor and will continue to serve under his leadership as Secretary of Health. She remains laser-focused on protecting the health and well-being of Pennsylvanians as we navigate this ongoing pandemic," they said.
Wolf on Wednesday said he's proud of the work Levine has done and denounced the post.
“Hate has no place in Pennsylvania, even in the smallest transphobic joke, action or social media post. I’m calling upon all Pennsylvanians to speak out against hateful comments and acts, including the transphobia directed at Dr. Levine and all Transgender people in our great commonwealth," Wolf said in a statement.