Growing up on a dairy farm in northeastern Pennsylvania, Helen James milked cows, drove tractors, helped with harvest and worked on a team of horses. Her family had a long history with the military – her great-grandfather was a soldier in the Union Army during the Civil War and her father served in World War I. James was no stranger to seeing cousins and uncles ship off to war and in 1952 she decided to serve her country, as well.
James joined the U.S. Air Force and worked as a radio operator, which involved contacting each military base on the east coast every hour. This job was a system used as the country’s defense against attack from the outside. She enjoyed her job and decided to apply for commission in 1955. During her application process, rumors of James’ sexuality were under investigation. This was an attempt, also known as the “Lavender Scare” to try and remove LGBTQ+ members from servicing.
Three years after enlisting, James was expelled from the Air Force with an “undesirable discharge” for being a lesbian. Earlier this year, at the age of 90, James’ filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Air Force requesting to upgrade her status to an “honorable discharge”. The Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records agreed and James’ status was officially changed after 60 years.
Despite her discharge from the Air Force in the late 50s, James went on to have a very successful life and career. She later attended the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford University, where she earned advanced degrees in physical therapy. In 1972, she joined the faculty at Fresno State and taught in the physical therapy program, and served as a pioneer for the newly formed PT program. In 1989, she went into private practice.
“I had patients, friends, students I learned so much from. I’ve done this all because I’ve been pushed. I need to do as much as I can to prove I’m a good person,” James told the Washington Post.
Her career led her to publish research and work with elite Olympic-level athletes. She considers her honorable discharge title as a form of vindication. More than 60 years ago, the Air Force told her she was not fit for the uniform because of who she was. That discrimination was the engine behind her success and the drive that pushed her forward.
The Helen G. James Collection is now archived in the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution. It features a photo album of 70 black and white images related to James’ career in the Air Force, as well as legal documents from her discharge lawsuit.
To read the full-length article published by The Washington Post, please click here.
– Summarized by CHHS Communications Student Assistant, Rebeca Flores
I heard her story on the radio. What a tear jerker…
I feel like we’re going backwards, in many ways. But in the fight for LGBT equality, we’ve come so far.
I’m only saddened by the fact she couldn’t come out sooner.
I’m so thankful for folks like Helen James–it’s because of people like her that I can be out today without the same fear of losing my job.