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The military is offering to transfer troops affected by anti-LGBTQ laws, but the process isn't easy

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Eric Dietrich
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U.S. Air Force
Service members and guests — including Space Force Command Chief Master Sergeant John Bentivegna (center) — attend the Air Force LGBTQ Pride celebration at the Pentagon on June 6, 2022. This image has been altered to obscure security badges.

In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott calls it "child abuse" for parents to provide transgender children with medical care that supports their gender identity. In February, he told state officials to investigate them and called on the public to report instances of minors getting such care.

It brought panic to one Air Force family living in San Antonio.

“We didn't know whether it was just going to be a witch hunt immediately, or if they really had any legal standing,” said B, a military spouse who asked to go by her first initial for fear of retaliation. “Did that mean they could come to our door and take our child away from us? We just didn’t know.”

B and her husband have a teenage daughter who came out as trans a few years ago. Their daughter goes to a private doctor off-base, where she’s received puberty blockers, mental health counseling and hormone replacement therapy.

“My initial reaction was, we need to pack up and get out of here,” B explained.

Although B’s initial instinct was to leave the state, moving isn’t easy for service members, who usually have little choice about where they're stationed.

But as states like Texas and Florida began enacting policies hostile to LGBTQ people and their families, the Air Force issued 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,” said Air Force Undersecretary Gina Ortiz Jones. “Medical, legal resources and various assistance are available for those who need them.”

Jones told members of the Air Force and Space Force they can transfer to states they believe are safer for their LGBTQ dependents.

“The Department of the Air Force and the Department of Defense don't take a position on these laws one way or the other. But we know that they may impact our families,” she said in an interview.

Jones said troops can take advantage of a Defense Department-wide initiative called the Exceptional Family Member Program. It’s a way for service members to let the military know about family members' special medical needs, so they’re assigned to duty stations that can support them.

“We care about all of our airmen, all of our guardians,” Jones said. “Frankly, I need folks focused on the mission, not worried about whether their kid is going to be denied health care.”

Officials with the Army, Navy and Marine Corps said they too will consider relocation requests through the program.

Advocates said the Exceptional Family Member program, or EFMP, provides a good structure to support military families with LGBTQ dependents. But they said it isn’t standardized across different bases and service branches — and not many people know about it.

Bree Fram of transgender rights organization SPARTA said administrators sometimes don’t know how to support families with transgender children.

“We've heard mixed reactions from people on that, with some going to their EFMP coordinators and being told, ‘No, that's not something we do.’”

Others said there’s a stigma around using the program.

“Some people think it's a career-ender, which it could be. Because you're limited to certain bases, and the ability to progress in your job is limited based on that,” said Jennifer Dane, director of the Modern Military Association of America.

Even if families get moves approved through the program, there are long lead times for relocation and no financial support for families who decide to live separately because of their children's needs.

B, the Air Force spouse in San Antonio, doesn’t plan to use the program — at least for relocation — because it’s not confidential. B said she'd have to go before a committee and out her daughter.

“This shouldn't even be a conversation we're having,” she said. “Why should I have to out my child to this group of people and bring something so personal into the public sphere, just so that we can be safe?”

Gender-affirming care is available at some military medical facilities, but there are often long wait times. Many smaller clinics don’t have the ability to offer it. But even if the military could guarantee support and medical care for her daughter, B acknowledges there’s only so much it can do to protect her family from discrimination.

“I don't think at this point there’s anything that the military could do to make us feel safer. Because the state laws are still going to be in place, whether the military makes changes or not,” she said.

“I think families are going to be discouraged. The more laws that are passed, the fewer places we're going to feel safe living. That's going to cause people to leave the military."

Gina Ortiz Jones, the Air Force Undersecretary, said in June that she wasn’t aware of anybody who has yet taken advantage of the program because of state LGBTQ policies.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.