Good Morning
Good Morning
Long Island

Booted from Air Force for being a lesbian, she now has honorable discharge

Airman Helen Grace James in a cargo door

Airman Helen Grace James in a cargo door of a Douglas C-47 Skytrain transport airplane during her Air Force service in the 1950s. Credit: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

The military interrogator had hours of questions that 1955 day for Airman 2nd Class Helen Grace James, a radio operator based at the Roslyn Air Force station who had just been arrested as a threat to national security — for being a lesbian.

How did she feel about her sister? How about her mother? The Freudian questioning was relentless.

By the time James realized that she had been under surveillance for months, due to an anti-homosexuality order by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, it was too late.

Her barracks had been bugged, she and her friends ambushed by plainclothes investigators at a lesbian bar in Greenwich Village, her dark-blue Plymouth Coupe followed on Roslyn roads as she and another woman in the U.S. Air Force drove to get a sandwich.

The interrogation ended only after James agreed to accept what would wind up being an "undesirable" discharge from the military, in which she had enlisted three years before.

"He began to threaten going to my family, going to my friends, exposing me for being gay," James recalled Thursday. "And so, I finally said, ‘Write something down, and I’ll sign it.’ "

She was too shaken to read it.

Now 94, James sued the U.S. government in January 2018 and within 10 days was granted what she had longed for, for 53 years: an honorable discharge.

Hers is one of the stories of Pride month, which commemorates the June 1969 riots at the Stonewall Inn — credited with kick-starting the modern gay rights movement.

James was among thousands kicked out of the military or fired from federal civilian jobs during what became known as the Lavender Scare.

In 1953, Eisenhower signed an order making "sexual perversion" a disqualifier. It was a time when Sen. Joseph McCarthy and others decried that "sex perverts" had infiltrated the government. McCarthy and other officials feared that the people the government deemed "perverts" could be easily blackmailed, according to the 2004 book "The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government."

As a result of Eisenhower's action, an estimated 5,000 federal employees lost their jobs over accusations of homosexuality, according to the National WWII Museum in New Orleans.

And by 2011 — the year the Obama administration lifted the military’s long-standing ban on serving and being openly homosexual — an estimated 114,000 personnel had been dismissed under other-than-honorable conditions since World War II for such accusations, according to the pro-LGBT Modern Military Association of America. The group has a "Restore Honor, Restore Dignity" program, and has helped more than 9,000 people fix their records.

As for James — who grew up on a farm in rural Factoryville, Pennsylvania, and goes by the nickname Jimmer — the military was a family tradition dating back to the Civil War: her great-great-grandfather was a Union soldier, her father served in World War I, her uncles and cousins in World War II.

"The Korean War came up, and I was old enough … I just had a yearning to go into the military," she said, adding: "It seemed like the way to go for me so I enlisted in the Air Force."

As a radio operator for the 26th Air Division Command, she was part of a round-the-clock team that monitored the skies across the East Coast for foreign invaders — airplanes, ships, submarines.

"We were protecting New York and D.C. and Long Island," she said.

If a plane deviated from its flight plan, she would radio down to Mitchel Field, farther south in Nassau County, and fighter jets would scramble to intercept within five minutes.

And it was in the military that she came to realize she was a lesbian. She had dated men before; but being with women just felt right, she said, recalling how they would also go to Broadway theater together and fly to different military bases to play team sports like basketball and softball, which she helped coach.

"We’d laugh and joke and we’d drink and we’d just enjoy each other," she said, adding: "It was just really fun. You know, it felt right. It felt good."

Under Eisenhower’s order, homosexuality was considered neither right nor good, reflecting the moral attitudes of the time.

And so military investigators' eyes were on James as she danced to Elvis or Nat King Cole or Ella Fitzgerald one of the few times she went to the lesbian bar in the Village or drove through woodsy Roslyn for a bite to eat with a friend.

When she and her friends were arrested, she was held at the Roslyn Air Force station, which was on some 52 acres used by the military starting in 1942. The site is now a village park.

With her "undesirable" discharge, James couldn’t return to high school teaching, which she had done before enlisting in her mid-20s: employers would ask for her military paperwork and refuse to hire a person with such a record.

"That hit me like a ton of bricks, 'cause I knew I could never teach again," she said.

Kicked out of the military, she soon got a job on a tobacco farm in Connecticut, and distanced herself from her family, terrified to tell them what happened in the military.

"I couldn’t face anybody at home. I couldn’t go home," she said, adding: "I had a loving family — and I had to just get out of their lives, cause I couldn’t bear the shame of talking about — or their finding out. So I just found my way."

She attended the University of Pennsylvania to study physical therapy, and was a physical therapist for the rest of her career until becoming a professor at Fresno State University.

Through the years, she also would go on to enjoy decadeslong romantic relationships with women and considers their children her own.

In 1968, with the help of a lawyer friend, she got the Pentagon to issue her a general discharge "under honorable conditions" — which isn’t a full, honorable discharge and denies the benefits of being a veteran.

In 2018, James filed her lawsuit, after trying administratively two years earlier for an upgraded discharge, with the help of the Bay Area nonprofit Legal Aid at Work and the law firm WilmerHale.

Soon thereafter, she said, two envelopes arrived: certificates for honorable discharge — one for airman second class, her rank when she was arrested in 1955, and another for second lieutenant, a commission that had been approved at the time of the arrest.

The certificates came to the ranch in Clovis, California, where she now lives. She says she feels "whole, complete, and recognized." And she is now eligible for government-provided medical care through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

"I’m comfortable with military people all around me. I feel right back at home. I loved the military. I loved what I did," she said, adding: "I loved the whole concept of service to my country."

Latest Long Island News