Hellen Grace James just recently received a message from the U.S. Air Force and she got the good news: The military had upgraded her discharge status to “honorable”. Believe it or not, Hellen Grace James had been waiting for this to happen for more than 60 years.
The 90-year-old James has been on a long journey to this moment of vindication, and she said that it’s hard to take in, and she’s wondering if she’s in a dream.
She told NBC News that she’s still trying to process it, as it was both joy and shock for her.
James had been followed by investigators back in 1955 in a wooded area near Hempstead Harbor in New York, where she was eating with a friend, and she had been suspected
James was in the Air Force at the time, and she was subjected to intense scrutiny for weeks by the Office of Special Investigations, which was investigating service members for being gay. They had even followed James into a lesbian dance club once.
She told NBC News that it was a place called Bagatelles, and the OSI was somehow able to get in and harass her there. She added that it was scary, and it was very intense.
Her record in the Air Force during her three years of service (1952 to 1955) was impeccable, and she had received positive performance evaluations, and had no disciplinary problems.
However, while stationed in Roslyn Air Force Base in New York, James came under investigation by the OSI, and a few days after that night near Hempstead Harbor, she was arrested in her barracks and interrogated for hours.
She said that the OSI threatened to out her to her family if she didn’t sign a document that effectively ended her military career then and there. She was discharged as “undesirable” with no severance pay, insurance, or other benefits.
She had to make her own way in life, and she hadn’t spoken to her family, who lived in Pennsylvania, on the dairy farm where she’d grown up.
She said that she couldn’t face them, and she couldn’t access the benefits of the GI Bill to help her through school. So, she moved to California and worked and borrowed money to pay for her education.
James is just one of the victims of what’s known as the “Lavender Scare”. It’s a period of time that took place at the same time with the “Red Scare”, when suspected communists were purged from the U.S. government. The “Lavander Scare” was an anti-gay sentiment, and during the fever pitch of McCarthyism, being gay was being associated with being communist. It was seen as “a scheme to undermine the traditional American family and American values”, and as an “immoral act that left who those participated in susceptible to blackmail”.
James was finally able to successfully upgrade her status from “undesirable” to “general discharge under honorable conditions” in the 1960s, and she finally got the recognition she deserves now, 60 years later.
On January 3, at the age of 90, James finally decided to sue the Air Force to have her discharge status upgraded to “honorable”, and she said that an “honorable discharge” would hold both tangible and symbolic value for her prior to finding out the Air Force had granted her upgrade.
The told NBC News that it will make her feel like she’s done everything she can to prove that she’s a good person and that she deserves to be a whole civilian in the country she loves.