Air Force offers help to families affected by anti-LGBTQ laws

Irina Baranova
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In an unusual move, the U.S. Air Force recently informed its service members that it will support their families with medical and legal help if they are affected by dozens of new state laws restricting LGBTQ rights, including relocating families if the need arises.

The assistance was made widely public in a March 24 news release that initially attracted little attention. It announced a de facto expansion of human rights protections for these military families as states have moved to ban gender-affirming care for minors, restrict teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools, and prohibit trans athletes from playing on girls’ sports teams.

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“Various laws and legislation are being proposed and passed in states across America that may affect LGBTQ Airmen, Guardians, and/or their LGBTQ dependents in different ways,” the news release stated. “The Department of the Air Force has assignment, medical, legal and other resources available to support Airmen, Guardians and their families.”

Those resources include free counsel to families trying to understand new state laws, as well as mental help support available through military medical facilities.

The Exceptional Family Member Program, which offers such resources to families with “special needs” and allows personnel to be reassigned to different states with safer environments for their families, has been around for decades. But in the current political climate, a category has been added for families to seek use of the program.

“Airmen and Guardians who wish to address assignment concerns as a result of local laws or legislation should engage their respective chain of command and assignment teams at AFPC,” an Air Force spokeswoman, Capt. Tanya Downsworth, told The Washington Post. “Family members receiving gender-affirming treatment, or likely to receive such treatment, may and should utilize the Exceptional Family Member Program to assist with any change of station movements regardless of location.”

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The move has been cheered by LGBTQ advocates. Lindsay Church, the executive director and co-founder of Minority Veterans of America and a nonbinary and queer Navy veteran, said concerns about a family member’s safety presents a threat to national security.

“Service members with LGBTQ family members who fear for themselves and the safety of their families carry an undue burden as the result of these hateful policies,” Church said. “We hope that the Air Force providing legal protections to these service members and alternatives to duty stations where service members have the potential to be harmed by these policies will influence additional branches of service to provide similar protections.”

“A,” the 34-year-old wife of a veteran in South Texas and mother of three children, two of whom identify as LGBTQ (including one who is transgender), echoed that sentiment. She hopes that other branches of the military and veterans also are provided resources; her husband was a Marine, and her family cannot access the Air Force support.

The family depends on military health care, including for her trans child, said A, who is being identified by her first initial out of fear of legal retaliation in Texas for speaking openly about her trans child.

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The family has been increasingly on edge after a Feb. 22 directive by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) ordering the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate as “child abuse” any gender-affirming care that families and facilities provide to trans children.

On March 11, a judge in Austin issued a temporary injunction against the order, calling it an unconstitutional overreach and a violation of the democratic process. The injunction blocked investigations and prosecutions of families, but soon after, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) tweeted that he had filed an appeal, claiming the injunction was “frozen.” By then, at least nine such investigations had been opened.

Despite the murky legal status of such investigations, the effect has already been chilling, said A.

“Teachers were terrified about whether they had to report their students,” she said. “Faith leaders were even called on to report families, including military families. So the implications certainly filtered into military health care.”

She added that her family has “been able to discuss with our provider what options are still available through military health care, and not all of them are, anymore.” She declined to comment on whether her child was receiving any gender-affirming health care.

Given the legal situation in Texas, she and her husband have grown increasingly concerned, A said: All three of her children carry a lawyer’s phone number inside their backpacks at all times in the event that someone from a state agency attempts to speak to their child about their identity and care. She has trained all three of her children to say they will not speak unless their lawyer is present — “a conversation you’d rather not have with a kid in elementary school,” she said.

For Heather-Lynne Van Wilde, who served in the Air Force from 2000 to 2005, the Air Force’s publicly declared support would have made a vast difference in her service, she said. She transitioned after her tenure in the military, which was during the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy instituted during the Clinton administration. At the time, gay, lesbian and bisexual service members were prohibited from disclosing their sexual orientation or speaking about same-sex relationships while serving. (The policy did not address trans service members.)

“I was forced to live two lives: the ‘male’ airman that the Air Force believed they’d signed a contract with, and the authentic self that I was when I was in a safe place,” she said. “A single wrong move, the wrong person finding out what I was, would set me up for a short-notice discharge.”

If she had been able to serve with the current cultural mores and military policies, she “certainly could have transitioned in the military, and most definitely would have,” she said, adding that it would’ve reduced or prevented “a number of the mental and neurological health conditions that I have now that make up a large portion of my military disabilities.”

As HuffPost notes, the latest move by the Air Force is “surprisingly bold,” given that the Air Force, as part of the federal government, is prohibited from weighing in on state laws. Most schools that Air Force family members attend, for example, are governed by state laws. But the Air Force’s focus, leaders say, is being “proactive” about making sure families are aware of the help that is available.

Kristen, a married lesbian and mother who is an Army reservist in Brooklyn, says she hopes other branches of the military will follow suit: A recent Florida law has made her afraid to visit for an upcoming family reunion, she said. The new law, called the Parental Rights in Education bill, prohibits teaching students in kindergarten through third grade about sexual orientation or gender identity and gives parents the right to sue school districts over teachings they do not like.

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Her son is 6 months old, and she fears what could happen to her family, given the increasingly hostile rhetoric directed at same-sex couples. She asked to be identified by her first name only because she works for the government and does not have the clearance to speak about policy.

“Families need protection,” she said. The Department of Defense “protects active duty soldiers in other countries; now you’re having to apply that in states in our country.”

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