This article is shared with LebTown by content partner Spotlight PA.
By Cynthia Fernandez of Spotlight PA and Julia Shanahan for Spotlight PA
HARRISBURG — One day after Pennsylvania’s top health official forcefully denounced transphobic attacks against her, a Republican lawmaker co-opted her call for acceptance to address “hateful and intolerant comments directed towards the unmasked community.”
Rep. Russ Diamond of Lebanon County released a statement Wednesday that mimicked remarks Health Secretary Rachel Levine made in response to recent “demonstrations of harassment” against her. Diamond has been one of the loudest opponents of Levine’s order requiring most people, barring a health issue, to wear a mask while in public.
“Your actions perpetuate a spirit of intolerance and discrimination against unmasked individuals and specifically individuals like myself who are outspoken about it,” Diamond wrote on official House letterhead.
The sentence, like many in his statement, pulled directly from Levine’s own remarks on discrimination and harassment against the LGBTQ community. As the face of Pennsylvania’s coronavirus response, Levine has been repeatedly ridiculed and attacked on social media and, at times, in public for being transgender.
Diamond denied he was mocking Levine, though in a text message to Spotlight PA he falsely equated being transgender to a “lifestyle choice.” When asked if he was comparing discrimination against transgender people to the treatment of people who choose not to wear a mask, Diamond said he “just thought it was ironic.”
“The release accurately speaks to those who have attacked, maligned, and threatened me, as well as others, since I first questioned the ridiculous mask policy months ago,” Diamond said. “Her policy allows for exceptions that apply to a lot of people, yet all we hear is ‘you MUST wear a mask.’”
In separate statements, spokespeople for House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) and Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre) said “discrimination in any form is wrong.”
“Rep. Diamond’s letter is his own statement,” said Mike Straub, a spokesperson for Cutler. “We will continue to work to rebuild and restore Pennsylvania to the benefit of all of our commonwealth’s residents.”
Jason Gottesman, a spokesperson for Benninghoff, said, “All members of the House of Representatives — both Republican and Democrat — are elected individually and have the tools to communicate individually without carrying the endorsement of any one caucus or the whole House.”
“Discrimination in any form is wrong and we continue to encourage all members to communicate professionally and courteously,” he continued.
Democrats were quick to criticize Diamond, who has generally refused to wear a mask when inside the Capitol, including during committee meetings when lawmakers sit in close proximity.
In a statement, Gov. Tom Wolf called on the House to formally reprimand Diamond over what he called a “thinly veiled attack on the LGBTQ community” and Levine.
“To equate any disrespect for those not wearing masks to the decades of disrespect, threats, and violence against our LGBTQ community goes far beyond the hallmarks of a decent society,” Wolf said. “For these actions to come from a legislator elected to fairly represent all his constituents is simply unforgivable.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Health called on Republican leaders “to take aggressive action right now to show Pennsylvania that this is not acceptable behavior from our elected officials.”
“Dr. Levine and the Department of Health continue to work and collaborate with everyone on both sides of the aisle because COVID-19 is not political and those trying to make it political are doing a disservice to the very people that elected them,” department spokesperson April Hutcheson said.
Diamond, first elected in 2014, has seen his profile grow since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic among people who oppose Wolf’s handling of the public-health crisis and don’t want to cooperate with the statewide universal masking order.
In March, he sponsored a resolution to terminate Wolf’s disaster declaration, which was advanced by Republican leaders and passed by GOP lawmakers and a handful of Democrats. Wolf argued that he was within his constitutional rights to approve or veto the resolution, a dispute that ended up in the state Supreme Court. The justices ruled in Wolf’s favor.
Diamond has also introduced a resolution urging Levine to resign from her position as health secretary, in part, because she removed her mother from a personal care home as coronavirus cases peaked in long-term care facilities. Levine said she did so at her mother’s request.
The lawmaker has also refused to wear face coverings on the House floor or in committee meetings, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls universal mask wearing “one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus.”
In a July 12 blog post, Diamond called into doubt the use of masks and social distancing, saying the effects of self-isolation are “cruel and inhumane.” He said face coverings inhibit face-to-face communication and social distancing guidelines reinforce the idea that people are in a “constant state of danger.” Diamond did not offer any medical or public-health driven arguments against the use of masks and social distancing in his blog post.
Diamond has also claimed that universal masking is dehumanizing to children, and recently shared a meme that stated, “A masked child is an abused child.”
Hutcheson, the health department spokesperson, said “every public health expert worldwide agrees that in the absence of a vaccine, wearing a mask, social distancing, and washing your hands are the best tools for preventing COVID-19 from killing thousands of Pennsylvanians.”
“This is about saving lives. It is not about infringing on anyone’s freedom, it is truly about saving lives,” she said. “If a simple piece of cloth over your face can do that, then we need it.”
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