Lesbian Soldier Denied DADT Discharge Now Seeking Canadian Asylum: Autostraddle Interviews Pte. Skyler James

When Private Bethany Smith, now known as Skyler James, 21, was outed as a lesbian by her comrades, she expected her “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” discharge to follow shortly afterwards. It didn’t. Instead, James, who was 19 at the time, was told they’d “deal with the paperwork” following her next turn in Afghanistan. In the ensuing time, James endured so much harassment and persecution in the US Army that she went AWOL and fled for Canada, where she wants to stay and is seeking refugee status.

Skylar_james

Autostraddle has also interviewed Lissa Young and Dan Choi about their experiences with DADT ending long military careers, but Skyler’s is a very different story.

Furthermore, Skyler is sick of her story being botched (we can’t imagine a headline like the CBC’s “Lesbian Deserter Appeals for Refugee Status” went in the scrapbook) (Also doesn’t that make it sound like she’s deserting the lesbians? Who would ever want to desert the lesbians?) and speaks to Natalie, candidly, about the reasons she left the army, seeking refugee status in Canada and her life now.

AUTOSTRADDLE: Why did you join the army?
SKYLER JAMES: Growing up in the United States I was made to believe that joining the army – or really any part of the military – was the best thing you could do, the best thing to do to make your parents and your country proud.

So, when I turned 18 – and with a lot of pressure from my parents – I joined the army.

AS: What was the army like for you? Was being gay a problem?
SJ: I was thinking it would very much be a good guy/super hero role. And of course being in the army is much more complicated than that.

At first the whole being gay thing – and DADT– was OK. I just thought ‘OK, I will keep things under wraps and not be so gay.’ And then things changed.

After basic training, I was moved to my regular duty station in Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Apparently, I had been seen by some of my peers holding hands with another girl in the mall. Before this, I think people thought I was just ‘the weird girl with the short haircut.’ But now, there was all this hatred and skepticism.

skylar_james2

AS: What happened then?
SJ: Well, at first, it was a lot of talk: ‘Oh, there is the lesbian…I saw her at the mall,’ and a lot of verbal taunting. And then, not even a week later, the physical abuse and threats began. Other soldiers – those who were supposed to have my back – would pick me up and shake me violently. And others – including sergeants – would just stand by and watch.

Then, I began being assigned to do work – physical labor – that would normally require 3 soldiers. And I started to get punished for things that one should not get punished for: I dyed my hair and I was punished. You can dye your hair in the military – just not an “unnatural” color… so I suppose no pink or green. But I dyed it blonde.

I began regularly receiving hate letters and death threats.

So, I thought ‘OK, I am not safe.’ I asked my immediate supervisor for a meeting with the first sergeant and was denied. Eventually, though, I spoke to the first sergeant and told him that I was gay and being mistreated because of it and wanted to be discharged under DADT.

He just shook his head and said, “We will take a look at this when we get back from deployment.”

So, I had to stay and deal with the daily harassment and the fear that, once deployed – most likely to Afghanistan – those who were meant to be on my side would be the ones who killed me.

AS: So, basically, the army – in a cruelly ironic turn of events – disobeyed its own discriminatory policy in order to retain as many people as possible for war?
SJ: Yes. Exactly.

There are two likely outcomes: I could be sent to a military prison or I could be sent back to Fort Campbell to finish my time. Honestly, the latter scares me the most.

AS: And what happened next?
SJ: Well, the hate mail and threats continued.

Some of the worst things said included: ‘We are getting the keys to your room… and we are going to beat you to death while you sleep.’ And ‘If you don’t go back into the closet and stop being who you are, we are going to kill you.’

That last letter I received, the one that said ‘We are going to get keys from the supplies sergeant’s office, come into your room while you are sleeping and murder you’ was the turning point for me. I was like ‘I am not safe here… I cannot stay… if I go to war with these people, they are going to shoot me.’

AS: And then you left? You went AWOL?
SJ: Yes, another solider and I – he was a friend of mine – decided to leave the base together and flee to Canada. We grabbed the help numbers we knew we would need upon arriving in Canada, hopped in his pickup truck and left.

AS: Was there not security stopping you?
SJ: There is security coming into the base…. but not really leaving the base. We were just able to leave.

AS: How did you get across the border?
SJ: Neither one of us had a passport or a birth certification. But immigration at the border in Windsor just asked us for our military IDs. We showed them. They then asked “Where are you going and what are you doing here?” and we told them they we were going to visit friends in Toronto. This is where the War Resisters Support Campaign (WRSC) was based.

Then a series of unfortunate events happened: we were robbed while in Toronto; we headed to Kingston, where we pawned off some items for money…and then tried to make it to Cornwall. We were about 12 km from Cornwall when we ran out of gas. Here we called the War Resisters Support Campaign.

AS: And then?
SJ: Joel Harden – from the Ottawa chapter of the WRSC – came and helped us; he listened to us and heard our stories. He brought us to Ottawa.

The WRSC helped us fill out paperwork as refugee claimants seeking refugee protection. Once the paperwork was in place, I secured a job. I have always worked, always been a law-abiding citizen. At the moment, I am working at a call center.

AS: How have people reacted to you and your story?
SJ: Most people have been incredibly kind and supportive; they have told me that I am courageous and wish me the best. The negative comments I hear are primarily from the internet. It’s the anonymity, I think. I wish people would not comment unless they know the whole story.

AS: What consequences do you face/do you fear if you deported back to the US?
SJ: Well, my life is very much here now; I have great friends, I am integrated into the community, I volunteer. It would be awful to be pulled from all of this.

And then, I am super scared of everything if I have to go back: seeing the same people who caused me physical and emotional pain, being court-martialed by the same people who caused me to fear my life. These things are incredibly troubling. There are two likely outcomes: I could be sent to a military prison or I could be sent back to Fort Campbell to finish my time.

Honestly, the latter scares me the most. If I were sent back there, I would fear for my life – I would fear that I would be murdered. Fort Campbell is the most infamous army base in the US for gay bashing.

Of course I will be court-martialed for being AWOL, as anyone would be. But, I think because of the time period in which I left (a time of war) and, above all, because of who I am – a lesbian I will be punished more harshly. I fear that I will face physical abuse, persecution and/or excessive/unwarranted punishment because of my sexual orientation.

AS: Where are you now in terms of your immigration process?
SJ: In Nov 2008, the Immigration Review Board (IRB) denied my claim that if I were deported back to the US, I would face persecution on the basis of my sexual orientation. They claimed that there was not enough evidence. Well, I feel for cases like this, there never is “enough evidence.”

Even through all of this, I like my country and I love my state, Texas.

At the moment, we just finished a judicial review. My case is being examined by another federal court judge; this judge is going to decide whether my case should be reviewed again by the IRB. If he says yes, then my case will go back to the IRB, and a different member will review it. If he says no, the deportation process effectively begins. A pre-removal risk assessment will be done, which attempts to assess the risk I face of persecution if I return to the US.

My lawyer and I are submitting a humanitarian and compassionate considerations application, along with my application for permanent residence in Canada. So, friends and people I volunteer with are writing letters about why I should be allowed to stay, what an asset I am to the community and so on. Hopefully this will help my application.

AS: What advice would you give a gay individual looking to join the army?
Skyler James: Don’t join! Seriously.

If you are gay and you’re already in the military, keep your head down, don’t do anything crazy. Try as hard as possible to not let your peers find out.

If your peers do know, and they are treating you poorly – seek help. Unfortunately, the response you receive often depends on what your superiors are like.

AS: Would you have done anything differently?
Skyler James: How I answer this question really depends on my mood: there is a part of me that wishes that I had never joined the army; but then, there is another part of me that thinks the reason I am who I am today is precisely because I joined.

AS: What would you say to people that question your patriotism?
Skyler James: Even through all of this, I like my country and I love my state, Texas. I used to be able to say I would do anything for my country, but after everything that has happened and how it has been dealt with, after learning what I learned about the army and how it is run… I don’t think I would die for my country, although I would do almost anything else.

AS: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Skyler James: Riese rocks!

Avatar of natalie

Natalie has major problems sleeping and a lot of thoughts and feelings. Natalie enjoys cereal with berries, the elliptical machine, coffee, sleeping during the day, walking, books and critical thinking. She also enjoys people – boys girls and everyone in between. If she were an animal, she’d be a dolphin squirrel hybrid. Originally from Ohio, Natalie currently lives in NYC with Riese, who she met while getting her BA in Gender, Race and Ethnicity Studies from U-Mich. She went on to get an M.S. in Philosophy at the London School of Economics and currently is a consultant for AWID-the Association for Women’s Rights in Development. She wants to do good, she wants to birth dogs, she wants so many things.

Natalie has written 7 articles for us.

58 Comments

  1. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    I have 4 (male) cousins in the service (Air force, Navy, Marine Corps) and while 3 are straight and married, I think that one of them is waaaay in the closet, and I wonder what military life is like for him. I wonder if it’s treatment like this that keeps him in the closet. It makes me so sad and angry that anyone can be treated like their life doesn’t matter, that they should be harassed (and worse!) because of who they love. Skyler, I’m glad you got out and I really hope everything works out for you, you deserve it!

    • Thumb up 0

      Please log in to vote

      Hi Elizabeth:
      it makes me sick, too, that completely arbitrary factors – like someone’s sexual orientation or age or race or gender etc – can be the cause of such discrimination, such hatred. sigh.
      thanks for your comment.

  2. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    Skyler, what happened to you sucks. It’s likely that this sort of thing will happen even more when DADT is finally repealed, but leaving it in place only tells these ignorant people that there is something wrong with gays serving, when clearly there isn’t. Ending DADT is an important first step towards national acceptance of all people. Unfortunately, in the mean time, I think you’re right, and it’s probably better not to join the military right now. Or at least, not in an area that isn’t open to gay people. I’m part of a military family, and I know all too well how the military’s red tape and paperwork always seems to work against what is right. Even getting paid on time or getting benefits worked out takes a ridiculous amount of paperwork and effort to get the superiors to actually put it through.Thank you for telling your story. Hopefully it helps put a stop to this insane behavior from people that are supposed to be protecting the country.

    • Thumb up 0

      Please log in to vote

      I think this is a really important point, Heather, that repealing DADT might make it even harder to be gay in the military for a while. It sucks, but it has to happen to ever start making improvements.
      It’s ridiculously ironic that DADT fosters so much discrimination, and yet the one time it could help out a gay person, the army ignores it. Hypocrisy on top of hypocrisy.

    • Thumb up 0

      Please log in to vote

      Hi Heather: thank you very much for your comment. it’s a really impt point: when DADT is repealed, what will the consequences – both positive and negative – be? how can the negative consequences be mitigated and ultimately rectified?

      thanks again for your comment.

  3. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    Great article Natalie.

    Cheers Skyler, I hope you get good news from your judicial review! Thanks for sharing your story here, I got a much better sense of your personal situation here then in any of the news articles back in September.

  4. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    oh wow – thanks for the story! I had never heard this before. Alot of people would just assume being gay in the military is mildly uncomfortable, but things like this prove how fucked up some things still are.

  5. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    I remember this situation from early September; I read about a few different variations of it in various Canadian newspapers. What really got me about those articles was the comments that were posted (if comments were allowed). A few fellow Canadians took the stance that it wasn’t “our” responsibility to “rescue” an American deserter. I believe this type of argument might have stronger legs to stand on if Skyler was applying for welfare, committing crimes or just sitting around taking up space.

    Skyler is a working women, who has developed a social network for herself here in Canada! Sounds like a solid tax payer to me! Sounds more productive than lots of other Canadians!

    Anyways – just wanted to say high five Skyler, good on you, hope you get to stay! Thanks for this Autostraddle.

    • Thumb up 0

      Please log in to vote

      Hi JJ:
      thanks for the comment! I agree fully…and also think it is super interesting how people conflate arguments: skyler is not seeking asylum because she simply did not want to stay in the military…the issue is not deserting here–the issue is persecution and fear for one’s life – that’s the basis for her claim. argh! and so many people seem to miss that and get caught up on other points. deserting is certainly an important issue legally and morally etc; however, it really is not – and should not – be the focus of this case.
      thanks again!

  6. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    First time here, and I really enjoyed this article – thanks! I really like the look and feel of this site – how long have you been around for? Thanks Jen for sending me this link. I’m sure I will enjoy many other things from this site.

  7. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    I’m so glad I found this story. I’m a lesbian and I’ve been in the Air Force for a little over 2 years now and I have seen the discrimination but never as bad as Sklyer had. Though there is the DADT policy, you’re kind of seen as a party favor to everyone else. “Oh, the lesbian is gonna tell some gay stories!”, or “I wonder what “friend” is she going to bring over next?”, or the absolute worst, in my opinion, “I wonder if i can join?”. I have had gay and lesbian friends in the Army, Navy and even Marines and none of them lasted more than a year, especially the men. The taunting, the lack of help from your supervision; it builds up over time and it all hurts. I have been lucky enough to find people who are kind and don’t judge, but at the same time I have this feeling of “When am I going to be next? When does my luck finally run out?”. I thought of leaving the Air Force, but I have also received negative comments from people within the LGBT community. I have been called a babykiller numerous times. I have been kicked out of bars and had drinks thrown on me. I’ve been slapped on countless occasions. I’m sorry that I have gone on a rant here, but it just makes me angry that I’m sacrificing six years (and possibly more) for a country where I’m often treated like a second class citizen. I wish I was brave like Skyler was and just know when to back away.

    • Thumb up 0

      Please log in to vote

      Jojo, the abuse you have suffered – has it been reported? Are there channels for attempting to end such things or is there just not that kind of support for you yet? (YET – why is this taking so long anyways…)

    • Thumb up 0

      Please log in to vote

      Jojo:
      thank you for sharing and thank you for your service–i think you are incredibly brave and courageous.

      it makes me so sad and angry to hear about how you have been treated; and to hear about the mental anguish; i am rooting for you, whatever you decide to do. and i do hope that you have at least one superior that is supportive and can offer some help. you should not have to put up with this shit. argh.

      xx

      • Thumb up 0

        Please log in to vote

        You can’t really report something that shouldn’t happen. You can’t report that you were assaulted in a gay bar when you shouldn’t have been in the bar to begin with. when I show up with bruises, all I say is that I was in a fight and I’m okay to work. I work in a manual labor career field (in my opinion I have the gayest job in the military, but I digress) so wounds aren’t uncommon. As to my superiors, few know. Only the ones I work closest with, know my sexuality. There are so many cases of abuse within ranks that never make it to the light of day. A lot of “incidents” get buried and because of it a lot of us to really think it’s worth it to come forward. We’re told to take it in stride. Every year my enlistment anniversary comes, I try to remember if it was worth it. So far I have because I would like to still be in the military when DADT is eventually repealed and I don’t have to hide. I’ve found it easier to remain single and be secretive about the clubs I go to. As of right now I’m overseas which makes things slightly worse. All the angst towards gays in the states multiplies overseas. I’m really just sick of it all. I’m sick of being called a warrior. I’d rather be a lover. But in the military there can be no lovers, just privates, airmen and seamen. I don’t know what more I can say. There are too many of us in this camouflaged closet.

    • Thumb up 0

      Please log in to vote

      wow….i totally know how you feel jojo. that sucks about your treatment, and I think that those people are second class humans. So just keep your head high and know that you are a good person.

  8. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    Everything about this makes me so angry. I’ve always thought that one of the strongest anti-DADT arguments is that our servicemen and women are adults and honorable people, and that it’s an insult to them to assume they can’t handle knowing that their comrade is gay. It disgusts me to know that this isn’t always the case. Thanks for sharing your story, Skyler.

  9. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    This is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. I can’t imagine being seriously terrified for your life of going back to your own country, your own home. It makes me so sad that shit like this is happening in the western world – we’re supposed to be “advanced” and “enlightened” – this is what separates us from the countries we’re fighting in. The world is never going to get better like this.
    -
    Skyler, I wish you the best of luck in Canada and hope that you will always be safe there.

  10. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    I’ve been reading Autostraddle for a while now and one of the things that continues to separate this site from others in the personal touch you bring to the pieces you choose to share & feature. The conviction the Autostraddle women write with is always so heartfelt and impressive and that is really “a breath of fresh air” from all the BS that is everywhere on the internet.

    Skyler – I am wishing you all the best!

  11. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    I enjoyed this article for its politics, but even more for its human perspective. I feel like Skylar James needs to write an autobiography, because there must be so much more to say about her experiences. I promise to buy a 1st ed. copy!

  12. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    The DADT thing confuses me. There are many professional and excellent military forces (one of which I serve with) which don’t distinguish based on sexuality. How can the US have such problems with this when the whole rest of the western world does not? How can anyone in the US even argue against homosexuals being able to serve in the military? It’s bizarre!

  13. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    Wow. Ok, I feel so ashamed for not having heard of this. I live right outside Ft. Campbell, and I don’t think local media covered this AT ALL. You guys may or may not remember the brutal murder of PFC Barry Winchell (beaten to death by a fellow soldier for dating a transgendered person). This happened at Ft. Campbell in 1999.

    Skyler, I’m so sorry you had to see the ugly side of this part of the country. We offer a lot of great things but unfortunately tolerance isn’t one of them. It will probably never change.

      • Thumb up 0

        Please log in to vote

        I assumed that was the reason. It’s completely insane that I live in the area (moved here because a parent was stationed at Ft. Campbell) and heard not a word and didn’t hear about it until I pulled up this website yesterday. At first I was a little ticked off about them not covering it, but now I’m just completely livid. Our city is too worried about another Extreme Makeover: Home Edition project to give REAL news the time of day. I don’t know if it makes me sick or sad or both. Probably both.
        Skyler, I hope you find nothing but happiness in Canada. I really do.

  14. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    Let’s see – she hates the rule that lets the the military discharge gay soldiers SO MUCH – and she really REALLY hates it when they don’t discharge her for meting gay. Hey – her outcome is the same as if DADT didn’t exist – so her got exactly what she says is ‘good’ – so what is her complaint? That they *did not* discriminate?

    • Thumb up 0

      Please log in to vote

      I understand what you’re saying — if this homophobia exists, why would it be any easier without DADT? — but I disagree with your argument. Here’s why:
      ++
      1. The existence of DADT sets an example of sorts — it sends the message that gay people don’t belong in the military. It institutionalizes bigotry and makes it acceptable & legal, and it breeds an abusive, intolerant environment.
      +
      2. Though it’s never certain that more than one gay person will be in any given unit, there is strength in numbers. Currently it would be against the rules or suspect for anyone to even defend a gay comrade against abuse,because one wouldn’t want to put anything out there that could be interpreted as also being gay. You have no allies, and anyone who wants to ally with you risks losing their job, too. When a solid handful of gays exist in each unit — even if just the possibility of another gay coming into the group any day exists — it’s harder to become a victim.

  15. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    “…’I feel for cases like this, there never is ‘enough evidence.’”

    So true. It takes a lot of courage to confront those in power, and even more courage to speak out when they won’t listen.

  16. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    My heart goes out to you, Skyler. I arrived at your story through a post on Facebook. Please keep up the fight, and reach out to me if you need any help. Not sure how I can help, but just to know that there are total strangers (yes, Americans like you) that are here to help.

    Namaste,

    Fred

  17. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    I’m sorry folks, but Bethany Smith is not an American hero. The true heros you should look at are all the gay and lesbian soldiers who join, fight and die without ever using DADT. Who know that they may face hate from those who they fight beside and who still would willingly die to help defend.To have to hide who you are and who you love is wrong, and in fact goes aganst the very freedom these soldiers are fighting for, yet they still do it! A day will come when who you love no longer matters, but in my opinion Bethany, if she were a true hero would return home and fight for her rights not hide out in another country.

    • Thumb up 0

      Please log in to vote

      I understand what you’re saying Jim…but do realize that to not die, and at least trying to make a difference and make changes so that lesbian and gay people don’t keep dying…that’s what i’m fighting for. A better day and age that is filled with equality for all people…not just straight or bisexual people. So if you would take a minute to let that sink in.

  18. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    hey skyler i recently saw a play at school which was about your situation and it really opened my eyes to how ignorant people still are. Learning about your story made me see how our world has still not come a long way in regards of discrimination, I hope that evrerything goes well for you and that you will be able to stay.

  19. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    As a veteran of the Army, and a lesbian, I know how hard it is to withstand physical threats and fear of retribution. Oddly enough the people who are supposed to defend the rights of all are often the most vicious and cruel. The argument against allowing out and open homosexuality is often “I don’t want to know who you sleep with” and yet, discussions of sexual practices based on heterosexuality, and in turn promiscuity, are often celebrated and encouraged by the both tradition and current military leaders. Thank you for the great article, and I ask people like Jim, who clearly know little of military law, to contemplate the physical and psychological, if not legal ramifications of Skyler returning to the US. For those of you not familiar with the UCMJ, the punishment for desertion during a time of war can be capital punishment-death. Stay strong Skyler, and everyone else, gay or straight, please speak loudly to defend the rights of all to serve their country without fear of death by those they serve with.

  20. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    Was looking through the site and found this article. Of course I am a lesbian, black, in the army, and I am currently deployed in Iraq, been here for almost a year. It does suck ass that there is DADT, I don’t agree with it, hate it, and I hope it gets repealed really soon. As far as my experience with my peers and superiors, all of my friends/majority of the people I work with know im lez. They treat me like a sister. I’ve never gotten harrassed bullied or threatened, they actually felt closer to me. I have to be careful who knows of course (I figure out who’s a snitch or homophobic before I tell them) but they’ve been pretty accepting of it and think DADT should be repealed. There are a few who have the “old school ignorant” mindset who I can’t trust but I never really have to deal with them at work. I’m not trying to stick up for the ignorant people but I would like to say that not all people in the military are ignorant, homophobic, non-accepting. I have met some of my best friends, have had great times, and just because there are a few ignorant assholes who give the military a bad name, don’t assume everyone is like that.

    There are days where I hate being in the army and there are days where I feel I made a good choice. Even though the repeal of DADT is sometimes delayed, pushed back, stalled, or feels like it’s never going to happen anytime soon, I feel like I am part of a new generation. How my ancestors before me were barred from joining the military, than asked to join but were segregated and had low (hard labor) jobs, they still joined because they wanted to. It’s hard to understand, why would someone join a system that discriminates them or puts them down? I wonder how African Americans (or even Asian Americans during WWII) would answer this question back then. I am doing it to finish my education, learn, travel, and help people. I feel like I am part of a new generation in the military. I am hoping that when DADT does get repealed that I can become difference maker in the military, a part of history. It’s only a hope that I can witness and experience the repeal; afterwards I would like to get involved/make some type of organization/program for gays in the military(military has EO reps, family organizations, womens groups, so why not gay/lesbian)……if I can prove that I am capable of serving, doing my job, making a change, hopefully I can change one ignorant mind after another….

  21. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    Dear Skyler:

    Right now, I’m working on a senior paper about the DADT policy, and how it should be repealed. I was wondering if I could get a personal interview over email, or some kind of computer program, to use as an additive to it. I plan to extend farther than just the paper, in hopes to send the report, and other informational bits, to President Obama.

    If you’re not interested, thanks anyway. And, I’d like to state for the record, that I aadmire you.

    Juliette~

  22. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    It is so sad to see an extremist take something so albeit, wrong, out of context, and use it as fodder against something she knowingly and willingly volunteered for. To be honest, in the 10 years I’ve served, I have never seen an openly gay person treated this way in the US Military. This is a freak ocurrance for someone who very clearly is not at a level of mental maturity to handle some of the responsibilities of a professional peacekeeper/soldier. Its very sad to see that she would vehemenantly speak out against joining the military. Though agreeably it is not for everyone, her bad experience that she undoubtably had some responsibility towards, should not be used as a testament to most peoples experiences.

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.