The fight for LGBTQIA equality often feels like one step forward, two steps back.

Last year, the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling making it illegal to discriminate against transgender employees. In January, we finally won the hard-fought battle to repeal the transgender service ban; during the same month, President Biden signed an executive order increasing protections against discrimination for transgender students and athletes.

Now we see the steps backward, as Republican state lawmakers retaliate with a record number of anti-transgender bills this year. While there have been nearly 200 anti-LGBTQ state measures proposed, according to the Human Rights Campaign, over 80 are specifically aimed at trans people — more than during any other previous legislative session. The bulk of these laws target transgender children and have the potential to create significant long-term harm.

A new attack on transgender kids

Less than 1% of the American population identifies as transgender, according to The Williams Institute, and HRC’s research found that a majority of Americans — even conservative Trump voters — support transgender people being able to live freely as themselves.

Yet conservative politicians have seized on trans rights as a flashpoint for another round of high-stakes culture wars, using their resources to attack this small, marginalized community with unnecessary, harmful rhetoric and legislation. More shameful, still, is the extremely protracted focus of their efforts.

Even though public sentiment and an increasing number of court rulings and executive orders lean toward trans equality, GOP lawmakers have set their sights on punishing transgender children. Some of the proposed bills ban transgender kids from participating in school sports. Others have more dire consequences, going as far as legalizing conversion therapy or criminalizing doctors — and in some states, parents — who provide gender-affirming health care to minors. And we’re not just talking about young kids; in Alabama’s version, doctors could be jailed for offering gender-affirming care to those under age 19.

Why are we seeing a surge in these laws if the public overwhelmingly supports trans equality? In a recent Slate podcast on this topic, experts suggested these laws are a conservative reaction to the increased visibility and public support of the trans community. Some of these laws won’t pass, and others will be fought in court. But that’s not the point. Slate’s reporters believe this is a deliberate strategy by anti-LGBTQ groups; by flooding the courts with these cases, they’re hoping some will get through and make it to the now heavily conservative Supreme Court.

Military families aren’t protected

President Biden’s recent repeal of the trans ban provides crucial new rights to transgender service members, but it doesn’t offer any protection to transgender children of service members.

The military’s Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP) is used to provide coordinated care and support for military family members with special needs. This includes physical, mental, emotional, and developmental disorders that require any kind of specialized care, whether it’s access to medication or specialist providers.

It’s also meant to ensure dependents aren’t sent to a new duty station where their needs cannot be met. For example, EFMP ensures that a child with autism isn’t sent to a base without autism specialists, or that a spouse with diabetes is not sent to a remote location without easy access to insulin. It doesn’t always work perfectly, but it can be a literal lifesaver.

However, inconsistencies abound. Military families have reported that these promised services are often unavailable, resulting in the congressionally mandated reform/standardization of the program as outlined by the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

Right now, transgender dependents can and are enrolled in the EFMP, but oversight and guidance at the installation-level are inconsistent due to varying state laws. And this inconsistency must be addressed.

Those who have never met trans youth may assume they’re too young to know their identity, but according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children become aware of gender as young as two, and they usually have a stable sense of their own gender identity by four. It’s natural for kids to experiment with their gender identity, and while this doesn’t always mean they are transgender when a child or teen tells us they’re confident their gender identity doesn’t align with their sex assigned at birth, we need to listen and trust them.

It’s important to note that many people falsely assume “gender-affirming care” means giving kids hormones and surgeries. In some older youth, it’s possible puberty blockers or other measures could be considered. But for younger children, these measures aren’t even on the table, despite the rhetoric and falsehoods spewed by anti-trans advocates. For young children, gender-affirming care includes having access to specialists who understand what they’re going through and can provide the youth and their family appropriate mental and emotional support.

We’ve heard stories of military parents of trans kids having nowhere to obtain competent care — in or outside of the military community. We’ve even heard of PCMs turning away transgender military kids for basic medical care that had nothing to do with transitioning. This is not acceptable.

A call to support our LGBTQ+ military kids

At Modern Military Association of America, we are advocating for transgender, non-binary and gender-diverse children to be eligible for TriCare treatment and the ability to be protected under the EFMP program, so they can have access to specialized care like they would for any other need.

Military families should not be subject to the patchwork of discriminatory laws in various states where they may be stationed. Being supported in EFMP could ensure, for example, that a Space Force family with a transgender child wouldn’t be sent to Alabama, whereas we mentioned, they’re trying to pass a bill banning and criminalizing gender-affirming health care for anyone under age 19.

We also advocate for transgender children to be included in school sports, using the guidelines offered by the federal government. Legislation banning transgender youth from participating in sports is discriminatory and causes mental and emotional harm. It “others” them and sets the stage for bullying from peers.

This isn’t just a human right or medical issue. The exclusion of trans children from EFMP considerations is a national security risk. Service members must be focused on their mission and able to deploy. They can’t be fully present or ready if they are also on the battleground at home, fighting for the basic rights of their children.

LGBTQ+ kids face higher levels of bullying and mental health struggles; research shows that supportive parents and gender-affirming care significantly improves outcomes in all areas of life.

Ensuring our military’s transgender kids are welcomed and cared for takes the pressure off the entire family. When military kids can easily access affirming care through Tricare, EFMP, and inclusion efforts now, we prevent future harm. These youth will feel seen and valued, their mental, emotional, and physical needs will be met, and they’ll be able to thrive.

If we fail to see and support them through the military, they will be forced to rely on the health care in their local area where the military sends them. And given the glut of anti-trans bills coming our way, it endangers their ability to access care at all. Instead, let’s set an example and bring them into the circle so that service members can fully focus on their mission, knowing their family is accepted and taken care of.

Jennifer Dane, Executive Director