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Lesbian air force veteran, 90, wins her ‘honorable discharge’ 60+ years after expulsion

Helen Grace James sued the United States Air Force for forcing her out in 1955 for being gay

Lesbian air force veteran, 90, wins her ‘honorable discharge’ 60+ years after expulsion
Helen Grace James was forced out of the Air Force in 1955 (Photo: Legal Aid at Work)

A 90-year-old lesbian has won her campaign to see her expulsion from the military changed to an honorable discharge.

Helen Grace James, originally from Pennsylvania, joined the US Air Force in 1952. She was following in the footsteps of her father, and enlisted as a radio operator at a base in Roslyn, NY.

In 1955, after members of the Office of Special Investigations followed her to a lesbian dance club, officials placed James under close scrutiny.

Shortly after, she says she was subjected to a humiliating interrogation back at the base.

When military officials threatened to inform her parents of their suspicions around her sexuality, she agreed to quit.

She received an ‘undesirable’ discharge from the Air Force on 3 March 1955. She was unable to return to the teaching career she had before she enlisted.

‘We are proud to have helped right this historical wrong’

Now living in California, James filed a federal lawsuit earlier this month against the Air Force’s decision to have her discharge changed from to honorable. This would restore her rights and honor as a veteran – and go some way to bring her closure.

On Wednesday she received notification by mail that she had been successful and the Air Force was changing her discharge status.

‘I’m still trying to process it,’ she told NBC News. ‘It was both joy and shock.

‘It’s hard to take in. I’m wondering if I’m in a dream or a wish.’

In the 1960s, James managed to have her ‘undesirable’ status changed to ‘general discharge under honorable conditions.’ However, this still prevented her to certain rights and benefits, such as being buried in veteran cemetery or access to USAA coverage for insurance.

‘We are proud to have helped right this historical wrong,’ commented Jonathan Cedarbaum of WilmerHale, who represented Helen pro bono. WilmerHale worked in conjunction with the organization Legal Aid at Work.

Matt Thorn, President of military LGBT organization Outserve-SLDN, told GSN: ‘We are pleased to see that the US Air Force has corrected the record of Ms. James.

‘Thousands of LGBT veterans have honorably and proudly served our country and deserve to have their records reflect that. OutServe-SLDN remains unequivocally committed to continuing our work with veterans to correct their DD214s and with the Board of Corrections to update these records.’

Helen Grace James shows of photos of her time in the Air Force

Helen Grace James shows of photos of her time in the Air Force (Photo: Legal Aid at Work)

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