At 90, Air Force veteran expelled in 1955 for being a lesbian gets her honorable discharge

Helen James


By KYLE SWENSON | The Washington Post | Published: January 24, 2018

A California woman kicked out of the military more than 60 years ago for being a lesbian has finally had her rights restored.

In 1955, Airman Second Class Helen Grace James was targeted and investigated by Air Force officials for her sexuality, part of a massive effort to remove gay and lesbian service members known as the "Lavender Scare."

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."

James's attorney recently 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 had been fighting to right the historical wrong with a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Air Force. The complaint asked the court to upgrade her discharge to "honorable," thus restoring the California woman's rights and honor as a veteran.

Read more about James's life and the history of the "Lavender Scare" here.

Helen James at her home in California.

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