In an incredibly unusual move, the Air Force is making a point to let its hundreds of thousands of personnel know that it will provide families with medical and legal help if they are personally affected by new state laws attacking gay and transgender children.
And if those service members feel they need to leave those states entirely, for the sake of their kids’ mental or physical health, the Air Force will help them to do that, too.
The Air Force is the only branch of the U.S. military doing this. Its leaders informed personnel late last month, both internally and in a press release, that they have several resources available to them if they need help navigating anti-LGBTQ state laws that may be hurting their families.
Specifically, Air Force leadership is telling service members that military medical facilities are available to provide mental health support to them or their children if they need it in the wake of new laws in states like Florida, where schools are banned from talking about gender identity or sexual orientation, or Texas, where the governor is ordering state officials to investigate parents of transgender children for child abuse.
They’re also telling service members that military legal personnel are available to provide free counsel to families trying to understand their legal protections in states targeting gay and transgender kids.
The largest Air Force base in the world happens to be in Florida, too: Eglin Air Force Base.
“The health, care and resilience of our [Air Force] personnel and their families is not just our top priority — it’s essential to our ability to accomplish the mission,” Air Force Undersecretary Gina Ortiz Jones said in a statement. “We are closely tracking state laws and legislation to ensure we prepare for and mitigate effects to our Airmen, Guardians and their families. Medical, legal resources, and various assistance are available for those who need them.”
Air Force leadership is also telling personnel that they can lean on an existing program, the Exceptional Family Member Program, if they need to be reassigned to a different state with a safer environment for their family or LGBTQ child. This kind of transfer could apply, for example, to an Air Force member who is stationed in Texas and raising a transgender child who needs gender-affirming treatment like hormone therapy.
“As is the case with all of our family members, if the support a family member needs becomes unavailable, commanders can work to get the service member to an assignment where their loved ones can receive the care they need,” Jones said.
It’s a surprisingly bold move by Air Force brass, despite the fact that it hasn’t gotten much press attention beyond Federal News Network flagging it late last month. As part of the federal government, the Air Force is prohibited from weighing in on state laws. But it’s clear that its leadership is concerned that the recent wave of anti-LGBTQ laws and directives could be hurting the health and well-being of Air Force families based in those areas.
“The Department of the Air Force is putting practical policy and compassion behind a matter of great concern to the administration. Family readiness is key to combat readiness,” retired Lt. Gen. Bruce Wright, president of the Air & Space Forces Association, told HuffPost in a statement. “Taking care of ALL Airmen, Guardians, and their families, whatever their challenges, is a core leadership principle and the department is demonstrating real and practical commitment here.”
The Air Force’s actions come as Republicans have settled on a political strategy of attacking gay and transgender kids ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott have been in the forefront of this ugly push ― both are likely 2024 presidential contenders ― but they’re not the only Republican leaders racing to pass laws making life even more difficult for LGBTQ youth.
At least a dozen states are now considering bills mirroring Florida’s law, dubbed by critics as its “Don’t Say Gay” law. Oklahoma, Arizona, Iowa and Utah this year passed laws banning transgender kids from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity.
Not to be outdone, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) on Friday signed a law making it a felony, with penalties of up to 10 years in prison, for parents and doctors to provide gender-affirming care like hormone treatments to transgender minors. Ivey also signed a law barring transgender children from using school bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity, and a law limiting classroom discussions on gender and sexual orientation.
“These discriminatory policies, bills and laws are causing real harm and distress to LGBTQ+ families,” said Human Rights Campaign spokesperson Delphine Luneau. “Like any good employer, the Air Force is taking steps to support their service members and their families.”
Luneau added, “We hope service members and their family members who are being affected by the wave of discriminatory legislation in many state legislatures will take advantage of the supportive services that the Air Force is offering, and HRC will continue working toward the repeal of these terrible laws.”
Most schools that operate on Air Force installations are part of local school districts, meaning they are governed by state laws, not federal laws. But other Air Force child and youth programs, like after-school sports teams, are not regulated by state authorities.
Air Force leaders have yet to receive any requests for legal assistance from personnel relating to the effects of these anti-LGBTQ laws, said Air Force spokesperson Laurel Tingley. They also don’t know if there’s been an uptick in the use of mental health services because they don’t track it.
For now, the Air Force’s focus is simply on letting personnel know that their employer has their backs if they need it, she said.
“The [Air Force] is being proactive about making sure our Airmen, Guardians and their families are aware of the help that’s available as they explore their options,” Tingley said.