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This interview was originally published in Autostraddle, October 19, 2009
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.
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. Auto Straddle: 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. Auto Straddle: What was the army like for you? Was being gay a problem? Skyler James: 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.
Auto Straddle: What happened then? Skyler James: 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. Auto Straddle: 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? Skyler James: Yes. Exactly.
Auto Straddle: And what happened next? Skyler James: 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.’ Auto Straddle: And then you left? You went AWOL? Skyler James: 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. Auto Straddle: Was there not security stopping you? Skyler James: There is security coming into the base…. but not really leaving the base. We were just able to leave. Auto Straddle: How did you get across the border? Skyler James: 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. Auto Straddle: And then? Skyler James: 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. Auto Straddle: How have people reacted to you and your story? Skyler James: 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. Auto Straddle: What consequences do you face/do you fear if you deported back to the US? Skyler James: 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. Auto Straddle: Where are you now in terms of your immigration process? Skyler James: 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.”
ven 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. Auto Straddle: 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. Auto Straddle: 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. Auto Straddle: 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. Auto Straddle: Is there anything else you would like to add? Skyler James: Riese rocks!
This article, by Dahr Jamail, was posted to Truthout, September 28, 2009.
Afghanistan war resister Travis Bishop has been held largely “incommunicado” in the Northwest Joint Regional Correctional Facility at Fort Lewis, Washington.
Bishop, who is being held by the military as a “prisoner of conscience,” according to Amnesty International, was transported to Fort Lewis on September 9 to serve a 12-month sentence in the Regional Correctional Facility. He had refused orders to deploy to Afghanistan based on his religious beliefs, and had filed for Conscientious Objector (CO) status.
Bishop, who served a 13-month deployment to Iraq and was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, was court marshaled by the Army for his refusal to deploy to Afghanistan. Given that he had already filed for CO status, many local observers called his sentencing a “politically driven prosecution.”
By holding Bishop incommunicado, the military violated Bishop’s legal right to counsel, a violation of the Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution, according to his civil defense attorney James Branum.
The Sixth Amendment is the part of the Bill of Rights that sets forth rights related to criminal prosecutions in federal courts, and reads, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district where in the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.”
Attorney LeGrande Jones, who practices in Olympia and was designated by Branum as the local counsel for Bishop, was also denied access to Bishop, on the grounds that Jones was on an unnamed and unobtainable “watch-list,” which constitutes deprivation of counsel.
Jones was denied entry to Fort Lewis and told he would never be allowed to enter the base. Fort Lewis authorities never gave him a reason for his being denied access to the base and his client. To this, Branum told Truthout, “Fort Lewis authorities have a duty to tell LeGrande the reasons why he is being barred from Fort Lewis, and therefore [barred] from communicating with his client in the Fort Lewis brig.”
Until September 18, Bishop’s condition was unclear due to his having been completely cut off from the public.
Branum, who is the legal adviser to the Oklahoma GI Rights Hotline and co-chair of the Military Law Task Force, also represents Leo Church, another war resister being held at Fort Lewis.
Church, who was also stationed at Fort Hood, went AWOL (Absent Without Leave) to prevent his wife and children from becoming homeless. The fact that he was unable to financially support his family off his military pay alone dictated that Church seek other means to support them. With his pleas to the military for assistance going unheeded, he opted to go AWOL in order to support his dependents.
According to Branum, “Church received eight months jail time because he put the safety and welfare of his children over his obligation to the Army. Leo tried to get help from his unit, but was denied.”
Branum told Truthout that Church had been able to contact him while at Fort Lewis, but the call was monitored by a guard, violating his attorney-client privilege.
Gerry Condon, with Project Safe Haven (an advocacy group for GI resisters in Canada), and a veteran himself as a member of the Greater Seattle Veterans for Peace, told Truthout he believes Bishop and Church are being held in a way that is both “intolerable and unconstitutional.”
Condon, who is working to try to support both Bishop and Church, told Truthout, “They are denied all visitors, except for immediate family, clergy and legal counsel [legal counsel is limited at this time]. No friends or fiancés. This is not the normal practice at other brigs.”
Branum told Truthout he feels that how Bishop and Church are being treated at Fort Lewis is “part of a broader pattern the military has of just throwing people in jail and not letting them talk to their attorneys, not let visitors come, and this is outrageous. In the civilian world even murderers get visits from their friends.”
Speaking further of the conditions in which the military is holding Bishop and Church, Condon added, “Fort Lewis authorities have made it virtually impossible for Bishop and Church to make phone calls. They must first get money on their calling account. This must be done by money order and according to several other similarly prohibitive procedures. And the money may not be credited to the account until a month after it is received. Plus, officials at the Fort Lewis brig must approve the names of people that can be called.”
Condon told Truthout, “Travis Bishop is a leader in what has become an international GI resistance movement that is attempting to bring troops home from both occupations by following their consciences and international law. They deserve all the support we can give them, especially while they are in prison - they are owed their constitutional liberties.”
Branum told Truthout that as far as he knows, he may well be the only person on Bishop’s call list.
Both Bishop and Church have been prevented from adding any names to their respective “authorized contacts” lists (even for family members), which effectively cuts them off from almost all contact with the outside world. According to Branum, mail and commissary funds sent by friends and supporters will likely be “returned to sender” due to what he feels is “a cruel and inhumane policy.”
In addition, there are no work programs at the Fort Lewis brig, nor any classes available for soldiers to take while they are incarcerated. Generally, work programs and/or classes are available for incarcerated soldiers.
“By participating in work programs and school classes, soldiers being held in brigs can get time cut off their sentences,” Branum explained to Truthout, “But these don’t exist at Fort Lewis, so that means Travis and Leo can’t get time taken off their sentences. Travis will do a minimum of 10 months, and could have theoretically worked an additional month off his sentence if Fort Lewis had these programs.”
Branum, who is the lead attorney for both Bishop and Church, told Truthout the actions of officials at Fort Lewis violate his clients’ constitutional rights.
“Bishop and Church’s defense team and supporters are in the process of negotiating with Fort Lewis officials to ensure transparency and that Bishop and Church’s legal rights are being met,” Branum stated in a press release on the matter that was published on September 17. “The unusual circumstances of isolation of these soldiers is unquestionably illegal. If Fort Lewis doesn’t change its ways, we will be forced to go to court and demand justice.”
On September 18, officials at Fort Lewis finally allowed Branum to speak with Bishop on the telephone, but not privately.
Bishop was accompanied by two guards, who monitored his conversation with Branum. In addition, Fort Lewis authorities claimed that the recently rebuilt/remodeled brig does not yet have proper facilities to facilitate a private telephone conversation.
Speaking further about the conversation he was finally allowed to have with Bishop, Branum added, “In the phone call we did get to do, they still refused to let Travis talk to me privately. He actually had two guards in the room with him the entire time, which obviously negates any compliance with attorney-client privilege. And presumably the phone call was taped (all of the other brigs have special rooms for attorney calls, that have phone lines to the outside that are not taped) which is completely unconstitutional. The brig of course will say, “well we won’t listen to that tape” but that is bullshit, and it is illegal.”
“The only reason they [Fort Lewis authorities] let me talk to Travis on Friday [September 18] was that he was finally “medically cleared,” Branum told Truthout, “This took 10 days in this case, and it looks like this is their standard operating procedure, which is completely wrong.”
When Truthout questioned the public affairs office at Fort Lewis about Bishop’s situation, we were told all matters were being handled “legally, and according to standard operating procedure,” and “any wrongdoing would be investigated.”
Branum added, “They are giving the excuse that “we don’t have the secure room for attorney phone calls set up yet,” but can’t tell me when they are going to have the room set up.”
Branum and Jones are planning to file a lawsuit against Fort Lewis in the near future, specifically targeting the denial of attorney-client privilege.
Both soldiers are being supported by two GI resistance cafes: Under the Hood cafe (in Killeen, Texas, near Fort Hood) and Coffee Strong (in Tacoma, Washington, near Fort Lewis).