helengrace

Discharged From Military Over 60 Years Ago For Being Lesbian, Helen James Is Fighting Back

Politics  

Airman Second Class Helen James was unjustly kicked out of the United States Air Force on March 2, 1955 for being a lesbian.

The time period, right smack in the middle of the Cold War, was thick with McCarthyism. The military and government, ironically using Stalinesque tactics, were hell-bent on “rooting out” gays and lesbians in a policy that was labeled The Lavender Scare.

James and another female service member went out to get to-go food one Friday night in 1955. The two of them drove to a quiet, wooded part of Long Island outside of Roslyn Air Force base to enjoy their meal, but after James turned off her car to eat her sandwich, they were startled by the glare of Air Police flashlights.

The Air Police had followed them. James was arrested within a few days by the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations, and interrogated for hours in such a disgusting, humiliating manner she became ill and “had to run to the latrine.” Her detainers threatened to out her to her family as a way of coercing her signature on their document that ended her military career by means of an “undesirable” discharge.

After this despicable event, James relocated away from her family and friends.

“I couldn’t be in the same area with that shame,” she said.

James grew up in a small community in northeast Pennsylvania on a dairy farm. The military tradition with the men in her family went as far back as the Civil War when her great-grandfather was a Union soldier. James’ father was a World War I veteran, and various male cousins and uncles served in WWII.

James recalls realizing her lesbian identity at age two when she told her mother to call her “Jim.” Thereafter she eschewed playing with dolls, opting for traditional boy toys and pursuing basketball and field hockey, finding herself being enamored of female screen stars at the movies.

“I didn’t even know what a lesbian was. I didn’t know that term until later,” she explained. “You just didn’t talk about it.”

Before signing up for the Air Force, James earned a college degree. She enlisted at 25 in 1952, happy with the structure the Air Force provided, and excited to meet people from all over the country. When she was stationed at Roslyn, James became a radio operator as part of nation defense. James was promoted to crew chief, which encouraged her to seek an Air Force career.

However, James and two other lesbians fell prey to the Special Investigations. First it seemed their rooms were being searched and they were being followed, which led to their arrests and interrogations.

Once James signed her own discharge under threat, she had to remain detained on the Roslyn base for two weeks. During this waiting period, someone had cut the buttons off her uniform as a display of disgrace, “so you can’t wear your uniform,” James explained, “so you can’t belong to the United States military.

Today James is 90 years old. She carved a very impressive life for herself, by earning advanced degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford University in physical therapy, of course all WITHOUT the assistance of the G.I. Bill. In 1972 James started teaching at California State University at Fresno (in California where she lives presently) in the physical therapy program, then went into private practice in 1989. All the while, James “published respected research” and counted Olympic athletes among her clients.

In addition to being denied access to the G.I. Bill, James was denied coverage from the USAA insurer. James managed to get her “undesirable” discharge altered to “general under honorable conditions,” which is not enough to receive benefits—for that an “honorable” discharge is required. Without the “honorable” distinction, when James passes away she will not receive the burial recognition afforded other service members. Therefore, last year James officially applied for an upgrade to “honorable” discharge with the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records. However, the Air Force informed James her records were destroyed in a fire in the 1970s, leaving her “claim in limbo,” though in November 2017 an apparent decision had been reached but could not be announced until signed by the board’s executive director. As of January 11, the decision has not been released, the inane bureaucracy of which prompted James to file a lawsuit to not only correct the discharge but to give her financial as well as emotional restitution for the discrimination she suffered over 60 years ago.

“I went to Stanford, I was a professor at Cal Fresno. I had patients, friends, students I learned so much from. I’ve done this all because I’ve been pushed. I need to do as much as I can to prove I’m a good person,” she said. “I still wasn’t whole.”

 

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