Helen Grace James takes on the US Air Force
Once upon a time, there was a woman named Helen Grace James who wanted to serve in the military for her country. But she was kicked out for being a lesbian.
Fortunately, sixty years after being served an “undesirable” discharge as part of the “Lavender Scare,” James recently won her lawsuit against the US Air Force.
Helen Grace James: A soldier and a lesbian
James grew up on a dairy farm in northeastern Pennsylvania and lived in a small community. She related: “Everyone knew everyone. My graduating class was 17 people.”
She also came from a military family, with a great-grandfather who was a soldier in the Union Army during the Civil War and her father serving in World War I.
During World War II, she saw her cousins and uncles ship off to fight. She said: “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,” she said.
However, she also knew when she was young that she was a lesbian. When she was two years old, she told her mother that she wanted to be called “Jim.”
“I didn’t even know what a lesbian was. I didn’t know that term until later. You just didn’t talk about it,” she explained.
More importantly, in her family, it didn’t matter if she was a lesbian. She said: “We all loved one another. That was the one place I really felt safe and comfortable.”
Helen Grace James and the Lavender Scare
She earned her college degree and went into teaching. However, in 1952, she signed up for the Air Force at the age of 25.
“I loved the marching, I loved the regimentation,” she said. “It was exciting.”
In the Air Force, she was stationed at the Roslyn Air Force base on Long Island as a radio operator and was eventually promoted to crew chief.
However, in 1955, the US military began to go after the gay and lesbian service members as part of the “Lavender Scare.”
In particular, the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations (OSI) began investigating James and two other lesbians at the base with their rooms being searched and being followed off-base.
The three were then arrested and questioned about being lesbians. She said: “When they threatened to go to my parents, I just said that was it.”
She related that someone had cut the buttons off her uniform before she left. She said: “That’s how they disgrace you, so you can’t wear your uniform, so you can’t belong to the United States military.”
Helen Grace James vs the Air Force
James went on to get advanced degrees in physical therapy from the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford University.
But because of her “undesirable” discharge, she couldn’t receive benefit from the GI Bill or even be covered by USAA insurance. She also wouldn’t be interred in a national cemetery when she died.
That’s why at the age of 90, she wanted to upgrade her “honorable” discharge with the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records.
After some delays, the Air Force made their decision but would not release it. She filed a lawsuit then.
More than just getting the benefits, she said she wanted vindication for being told that she was not fit for the uniform.
In 2018, she finally got her wish with the Board agreeing 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 will finally be properly recognized for her honorable service to our country,” Kim said.
“I’m still trying to process it. It was both joy and shock. It was really true. It was really going to be an ‘honorable discharge’,” James told NBC News.
“The Air Force recognizes me as a full person in the military,” she said proudly.