90-year old Lesbian Veteran Seeking Justice in Federal Court

Legal Aid at Work client Helen James holding up a photo album of her time in the military

On January 3, 2018, Legal Aid at Work, together with co-counsel WilmerHale, filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Helen James, a ninety-year old veteran who was discharged from the Air Force in the 1950s because she is a lesbian.

More than six decades after the U.S Air Force discharged her, Helen James is still seeking the honors she earned.  Helen entered the military in 1952 as a radio operator on a base in Roslyn, N.Y., following in the footsteps of her father, who had served in the Army. No one talked in those days about being a lesbian, Helen recalls, but she was grateful to have found a “community.”  Everything changed when Helen and three friends were picked up on their way back from New York City one night and interrogated as part of what she now sees as a much larger effort to purge the military of lesbians and gay men. Helen received a “Dishonorable Discharge” and found herself suddenly unemployed, unable to return to the teaching career she’d started before joining the Air Force, and ineligible for veterans’ benefits. It took her more than 60 years to shake the shame and anxiety.

Helen is among thousands of lesbian and gay veterans whose papers were not automatically corrected when “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” was repealed in 2011.  Helen, along with legal counsel, has been trying to correct her Air Force records so that she has the honorable discharge she deserves.  The federal lawsuit filed against the Air Force in the Eastern District of California, Case No. 18-cv-11-DAD-EPG, seeks to have the Air Force rule on Helen’s petition for a discharge upgrade (which has been pending for nearly two years) to allow Helen to receive certain veterans benefits and services to which she should be entitled.

Helen is represented by WilmerHale lawyers Jonathan Cedarbaum and Chris Megaw as well as Legal Aid at Work attorneys Cacilia Kim and Elizabeth Kristen.

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