Air Force Airman 1st Class Ysabella Paris, a fuel maintenance technician, participates in a cardboard boat race event in honor of Pride Month on June 9, 2023, at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz.

Air Force Airman 1st Class Ysabella Paris, a fuel maintenance technician, participates in a cardboard boat race event in honor of Pride Month on June 9, 2023, at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. (Katelynn Jackson/U.S. Air Force)

WASHINGTON — The Air Force has had to move service members and families more than a dozen times in the past two years because they faced discrimination and harassment related to racism and LGBTQ+ issues, the service said Wednesday.

“Since 2021, the Department of the Air Force has granted 15 relocation exceptions to policy for members experiencing a range of racial- and LGBTQ+-related discrimination,” an Air Force spokesperson said. “[Exceptions to policy] are requests to move prior to the end of a standard tour, and are typically made as a result of a personal hardship significantly greater than what others encounter in similar circumstances.”

The Air Force didn’t detail the reasons for the moves, citing risks to the families, though the service has previously expressed concern for the well-being of military families who might be susceptible to harassment, according to the spokesperson.

Alex Wagner, the Air Force assistant secretary for manpower and reserve affairs, said earlier this month during a panel discussion on national security that he has heard stories of families — including children — that have faced racism and anti-LGBTQ+ behavior in their communities.

“I’m worried about kids … because if folks, [service members] are thinking and concerned about the experience their kids are having, they are not going to be focused on their jobs,” Wagner told the panel hosted by the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank. “When I am forced to move families from installations because their school will do nothing when their LGBT kid is being bullied, that worries me. Because that's distracting from the mission, that's detracting from our readiness.”

Since Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin took office in 2021, he has attempted to promote a culture of inclusion within the military. Earlier this month, he commemorated June as Pride Month and honored LGBTQ+ troops who have volunteered to serve their country and protect the rights of all Americans.

“Their contributions to our national security are powerful,” he said. “The story of America should be one of widening freedom, not deepening discrimination. In 2021, I was honored to implement President [Joe] Biden’s directive to ensure that transgender Americans who wish to serve and meet department standards are able to do so — openly and free from discrimination.”

Military families serving in some states have recently faced increasing obstacles when it comes to gay-rights issues. Republican lawmakers and GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis in Florida, for example, championed last year the passing of the “Parental Rights in Education” law, which bars teachers from speaking about sexual orientation and gender identity issues in public schools. Critics called it the “Don’t Say Gay Law.” There are numerous military bases in Florida, including Eglin Air Force Base in the panhandle, which is one of the service’s largest bases. DeSantis is a Republican candidate for president.

In 2023, more than 500 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced in various state legislatures — a record, according to Human Rights Watch, a nongovernmental organization focused on human rights based in New York. Dozens have been signed into law in states, including Florida, Tennessee, Nebraska and Montana, the group said.

“Many of these laws directly affect children, teenagers, parents, families, schools and educators,” according to the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish international nongovernmental organization based in the United States specializing in civil rights law. “These laws ultimately affect society by perpetuating a culture of hate and injustice with less equity, more harm, more hate and more divisiveness.”

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Doug G. Ware covers the Department of Defense at the Pentagon. He has many years of experience in journalism, digital media and broadcasting and holds a degree from the University of Utah. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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