Now, at 90, and living in California, James filed a federal lawsuit earlier this month against the U.S. Air Force seeking to upgrade her “undesirable” discharge to “honorable.”
This week, James’s attorney received word the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records has agreed to change her status. “The Board has decided to upgrade Helen’s discharge status to Honorable,” James’s attorney, J. Cacilia Kim, told The Washington Post.
“Helen is thrilled and we are happy that the Air Force has corrected at least a part of the injustice that was done to Helen (and other LGBT service members) over 62 years ago. Helen will finally be properly recognized for her honorable service to our country.”
The experience was not isolated but part of a larger and ugly chapter in American history. She was subjected to a military investigation because she was a lesbian. If she was a lesbian, the U.S. military did not want her in uniform. Long before “don’t ask, don’t tell,” in an era spiked with Cold War paranoia and McCarthyism, the government and military systematically rooted out service members like James.
James went on to a very successful life after the military. But she never fully pulled free from the experience. Now, at 90, and living in California, she’s fighting to right the historical wrong with a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Air Force. The complaint asks the court to upgrade her discharge to “honorable,” thus restoring the California woman’s rights and honor as a veteran.
“It has crippled her throughout her life,” Kim said. “This is really so she’s not treated as a second-class citizen anymore.”
The Air Force press office declined to comment on the current lawsuit.
The anti-gay witch hunt ran parallel to fears of Communist infiltration. Wisconsin Republican Senator Joe McCarthy launched the “Red Scare” in 1950 when he publicly announced there were 205 Communists working at the State Department. Simultaneously, McCarthy also said there were 91 homosexuals within the same agency. As William N. Eskridge Jr. writes in his book “Dishonorable Passions,” there followed “a steady stream of bipartisan rhetoric associating homosexuality with Communism: both were secretive, worldwide coalitions of aliens scheming to destroy America and undermine family values.”
Within the U.S. military, anti-gay sentiment wrapped itself in the logic of “security risk.” Gay service members were susceptible to blackmail, the government believed. As such, they needed to be rooted out. Service members were ordered to report “overt acts of homosexuality” among their fellow soldiers. “Between 1950 and 1965, the armed forces separated between two thousand and five thousand persons as suspect homosexuals,” Eskridge writes. “The rate of discharge was much higher for women than for men.”
Most, like James, only wanted to serve their country. She grew up on a dairy farm in northeastern Pennsylvania. “I milked cows, I drove the tractor, I helped harvest, I worked a team of horses, even as a kid,” she said. It was a small community. “Everyone knew everyone. My graduating class was 17 people.”
The military ran deep within the family. James’s great-grandfather was a soldier in the Union Army during the Civil War. Her father served in World War I. Growing up, as World War II raged overseas, she watched cousins and uncles ship off. Some did not return the same. “My cousin who I grew up with was in the Battle of the Bulge and he came home to a mental hospital. He never came out. The military was something I thought was really important.”
James explained recently that in a dim way she knew she was a lesbian back when she was 2 years old, when she told her mother she wanted to be called “Jim.”
“They’d buy me dolls and stuff for Christmas, and I’d give them to my sister,” she said. She would rather have had a truck or boat or be playing basketball and field hockey. Later, she found herself watching movies and falling in love with the starlet on the screen. “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.”
And on the farm, with her family, it did not matter. “We all loved one another,” James said. “That was the one place I really felt safe and comfortable.”
After earning a college degree and spending a few years teaching, James signed up for the Air Force in 1952 when she was 25. It was a good match. “I loved the marching, I loved the regimentation,” she said. Meeting people from different parts of the country made locations she’d grown up only talking about — like California — suddenly real and substantial. “It was exciting,” she said.
James was eventually stationed at the Roslyn Air Force base on Long Island. She was a radio operator; the position involved contacting each military base on the East Coast, every hour on the hour. The communication was part of the country’s defense against attack from outside. She was good at her job, earning a promotion to crew chief. In 1955, she decided to make the service her career by applying for a commission.
But by 1955, rumors had started working through the barracks. The Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations was supposedly combing the ranks for gay and lesbian service members. James and two other lesbians at the base began to suspect their rooms were being searched and they were being followed off base. Then all three were arrested and interrogated about their sexuality.
“When they threatened to go to my parents, I just said that was it,” she said. After signing her discharge, James had to wait two weeks on the base before she was free to go. All her fellow airmen knew why she was leaving. One day she found someone had cut the buttons off her uniform. “That’s how they disgrace you, so you can’t wear your uniform, so you can’t belong to the United States military,” she said.
After the Air Force, James went on to get advanced degrees in physical therapy from the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford University. She felt like she couldn’t go back home. “I had to move myself away. I couldn’t be around my family and friends,” she said. “I couldn’t be in the same area with that shame.”
In 1972, she began teaching in the physical therapy program at California State University at Fresno. In 1989, she went into private practice. During her career, she had published respected research and worked with Olympic athletes. Despite the professional highlights, her discharge continued to impact her life. She could not pay for her schooling with the G.I. Bill. Later, she was denied coverage from insurer USAA. In 1960s, she successfully applied to upgrade her “undesirable” discharge to a “general under honorable conditions.” But without the “honorable” discharge distinction, she’s blocked from receiving the benefits.
That also meant when she passed away, she could not be buried with a color guard or be interred in a national cemetery.
Last year, as she approached age 90, James decided to officially apply for the “honorable” discharge upgrade with the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records. However, the Air Force soon let her know her records were destroyed in a fire in the 1970s. As such, the military left her claim in limbo. In November, the board told James they had reached a decision but said they could not release the decision until it was signed by the board’s executive director. The delay prompted her lawsuit.
For James, the corrected discharge isn’t just a classification or a channel to more benefits. It is vindication. More than 60 years ago, the military told her she was not fit for the uniform because of who she was. That discrimination was the engine behind her success. The upgrade is the last piece, she said.
“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.”