There are few experiences as quintessentially American—at least in the Friday Night Lights sense—as marrying your military-bound high school sweetheart. That is the story of Lindsey Lee’s life. She met her husband in high school and they married shortly thereafter. When he decided to attend the Air Force Academy, they moved to Colorado as a team, and later had two children. In the past 20 years, the family has moved almost a dozen times, crisscrossing the country for military assignments they could not predict nor control. “I’m proud of us,” Lee says with a gentle laugh as she recalls the experience of uprooting their small family again and again.
That has always been a basic function of military living. Certain states specialize in different military needs: naval ship-building on the coast of Florida or space policy in Colorado. Soldiers are “assigned” to states where their skills are needed, ensuring that the military has the right people in the right place at the right time in preparation for an attack.
However, members of the military and their families are being forced to refuse assignments in certain states by laws that limit access to bathrooms, sports teams, and gender-affirming care for transgender and nonbinary children. As a result, many of these families are seeking compassionate reassignment, which enables them to relocate for a year, or making the life-changing decision to leave the military altogether.
The impact of the past three years’ unprecedented and unconstitutional explosion of anti-trans legislation has found itself right on the Lee family’s doorstep. They have a child who is receiving gender-affirming care, which has been proven to significantly reduce suicidal ideation and self-harm among trans and nonbinary teens experiencing acute gender dysphoria. At the same time, Lee’s husband was recently promoted to colonel, one of the highest ranks in the military. As a result, he is up for reassignment.
“We can’t ever go back to Florida,” Lee says. Just last week, Florida Governor Ron Desantis passed a sweeping slate of anti-LGBTQ bills that, among other things, ban gender-affirming-care and impose new restrictions on adults seeking treatment.
“We couldn’t go to Texas. We couldn’t go to so many of these horrifying states passing these bills,” she says. “They’re just not safe.” Although they have requested to stay in Colorado, where their child is currently receiving care, their future is uncertain. There is a strong chance that her husband will be assigned to a state with a ban, which would mean splitting up their family, petitioning for reassignment, or retiring from the military altogether.
What would have once been a routine, albeit frustrating, reassignment process has become a defining moment for Lee’s family and her husband’s career. If he decides to retire rather than move, the family could lose thousands of dollars in retirement funds and the military would lose a decorated colonel. Despite these costs and his years of service, Lee says, ensuring continuity of care for their child remains their top priority.
“When it comes down to protecting your kid, you do what you have to do.” She’s not alone. According to MilPride, a nonprofit advocacy organization, there are over 40,000 LGBTQ+ youth with parents in the military. As discriminatory laws continue to be passed in states with Republican leadership, these parents will be forced to make the impossible choice between defending their children and defending their country.
In the first four months of 2023 alone, there have been more than 469 anti-LGBTQ+ laws introduced in state legislatures across the United States, according to the ACLU. These bills are wide-ranging, from bans on books that feature gay penguins to censorship of drag performances in public spaces. However, trans and nonbinary youth have been particularly targeted by legislation. Republicans have zeroed in on children, establishing a legal and political context through which to later pass bans on gender-affirming care for transgender and nonbinary adults.
What’s more, bans on gender-affirming care are concentrated in states with high military populations, which often have Republican-led state legislatures. Five of the six states—Texas, Virginia, Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina—with the highest number of active-duty troops currently have proposed or passed bans on gender-affirming care. These states represent 41 percent of the active-duty troop population, according to MilPride.
Unlike reports of civilian families with transgender children who can leave the state once a ban on gender-affirming care comes into effect, military members are at the mercy of the service. “When military families are faced with living in a state where their child won’t have equal access at school, to a sports team, bathrooms or access to health care,” says Cathy Morello, director of MilPride, “they are making decisions to alter their careers, including leaving the military.”
This comes at an acute moment for the military, which has a deficit of thousands of troops due to a strong labor market, fitness tests that many Americans can no longer pass, and the abiding sense that the military is not accepting of a wide variety of backgrounds. If families decide to leave the service due to anti-LGBTQ+ laws, they leave a gap that may very well go unfilled. Passing laws that force people to leave the military is yet another example of the GOP’s incoherent policy-making strategy, and the attendant reality that its singular goal is to maintain political power, even if doing so means scapegoating children and weakening national security.
There are two programs that are currently being utilized by members of the military to remain enlisted and protect their children: compassionate reassignment and the Exceptional Family Member Program, or EFMP.
Compassionate reassignment allows families to move for one year so that a family member can access life-saving medical treatment. Families are utilizing compassionate reassignment to leave states such as Florida in order to access care in sanctuary states like California. The other option for these families is applying for an EFMP. These allows someone to share their needs before they are assigned. Lee’s family, for example, was prepared to file an EFMP in order to stay at their base in Colorado.
These two policies were crafted to protect military family members who experienced sudden illness abroad and had to come home for treatment or who had a family member with special needs. Alleria Stanley, who is a veteran and transgender advocate, utilized compassionate reassignment when her wife received a breast cancer diagnosis while their family was stationed in Germany. They were granted compassionate reassignment and Stanley’s wife received treatment in the United States. The policy was created to address immediate, short-term medical crises—not state laws.
“This is the first time I’ve ever seen these policies used as a result of discrimination,” says Jacob Eleazer, a veteran, physician, and board member of SPARTA, a nonprofit organization that advocates for transgender people in the military. Since compassionate reassignment and EFMPs were crafted for emergency situations, advocates say they do not adequately protect transgender and nonbinary children.
One family, for example, utilized compassionate reassignment to relocate from Oklahoma to North Carolina. A few weeks later, their doctor in North Carolina declined to continue providing treatment as the state legislature introduced its own ban. This made the family’s reassignment devastatingly moot.
Additionally, as Lee pointed out, treatment for gender dysphoria yokes you to the medical system for most of your young adulthood. Her child is taking puberty blockers, which limit or stop breast development and menstruation. To have their intended effect, they must be taken consistently—and for much longer than the single year that compassionate reassignment allows.
The military medical system further complicates things. Military bases operate under federal law, which means that procedures such as abortion and gender-affirming care remain legal there, even if they are located in states where such treatment is banned. However, if there is not a clinician on the base who can provide specialized care, the family is referred to a doctor in a local community clinic.
Since many health care providers on military bases have not been trained in gender-affirming care (although parents like Lee and Morelo are quick to point out that they have had exceptional military clinicians), children must seek treatment elsewhere. For many families, the feeling of hopelessness if the military health care system fails them is acute. “It’s extraordinarily painful for people who are impacted in the process,” Lee says. And she points to the broader implications of such laws for the 40,000 LGBTQ+ children whose parents are serving—not to mention the psychological toll of facing persecution by the country you had sworn to protect.
“We have to think about this at scale,” she says. “There are some assignments where there is a high military need, and service members are having to add in this additional factor in the decision-making process.”
As a result of such stories, advocates say the military needs to take broader steps to protect queer and trans youth. The Air Force is currently the only branch of the military to provide explicit guidelines for families with transgender youth, and encourages them to utilize the Exceptional Family Member Program if necessary—an unprecedented form of guidance. Meanwhile, members of the Army, Navy, and National Guard are left to fend for themselves. Many advocates say that additional protections will come only from outside pressure, as the military is resistant to internal dissent by design.
Given the extensive nature of these bans and a lack of clear guidance, Morello, Elezaer, and others say the military is experiencing a readiness crisis. If families continue to refuse assignments in certain states—chief among them Florida and Texas—these bases will not be sufficiently prepared for future deployments. This comes at an already fraught time for service members.
According to the Pentagon’s own data, 24 percent of military families are food insecure because of rapid inflation. More frequent deployments and long-term separations from families have led to the highest rates of PTSD during any war, including World War II. And with an ongoing war in Ukraine and escalating tensions with China over the sovereignty of Taiwan, national defense is at the top of every American leader’s mind.
Ultimately, Lee says, this is part of a long trend in the United States: “We spend too much money on defense in this country, and we as military families don’t feel that.” If they did feel that investment, she says, their country would serve them through comprehensive gender-affirming care and a true engagement with their children’s needs.
“It’s all ‘rah-rah, support our troops!’ But it feels performative,” Lee says. Very few Americans consider the lives of military children, who don’t choose to enlist but are forced to be directly impacted by the military every day. “These kids deserve better.”