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Exclusive interview with feisty lesbian war resister Skyler James

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Exclusive interview with feisty lesbian war resister Skyler James

BRAVERY & VALOUR. War resister Skyler James holds a mounted plaque of the 2007 Capital Xtra feature article of her. IMAGE 1 OF 1
Courts offer reprieve; James thinks Canadian girls rock
Over a couple of beers on a Friday night, Skyler James talks about coping with being a "fugitive," how much Canadian girls rock, and her plans for the future.

James, born Bethany Smith, fled a Kentucky army base in 2007, claiming her life was in danger because of homophobia in the US Army. After the Immigration and Refugee Board rejected her asylum claim, things looked pretty bleak, but on Nov 20, James won a stay of deportation thanks to a Federal Court ruling.

James's, now 21, says she was harassed, was given extra work and received dozens of threatening notes, including death threats, on her residence door — all because a fellow soldier spotted her walking hand-in-hand with a woman at a shopping mall.

James's case has attracted national attention. When asked how she likes being in the limelight, she laughs and simply says "I love it! I just soak up the attention."

James carries on, living in Ottawa's Chinatown and working a regular full-time job in a call centre. Like many lesbians her age, she barhops with friends among Ottawa's gay bars, including the Lookout and Swizzles. Sometimes she runs into people who recognize her and congratulate her on her courage.

"One night, I went out clubbing in Hull. Some guys recognized me and flashed their cameras at me. I was jokingly like, 'No paparazzi!' But that was the only time people really bothered me," says James.

But the would-be poster child for fighting against military homophobia in the US Bible Belt often gets homesick.

After finishing a day of media interviews, James seems energetic, even at 9pm. In spite of everything she's been through, she smiles and keeps her chin up when she speaks. She still has the copy of the first news article featuring her in Capital Xtra; it's been now mounted by friends as a keepsake.

"In my hometown, there were only a handful of lesbians and hardly any gay men. Everyone down there is hardcore Christian. It's the Bible Belt. In coming to Canada, I saw there are more people like me. It's so free and easy-going here," says James.



Since leaving the military over two years ago, James has not been back to the US. She also has not seen her family in years, but they still talk through email and MSN Messenger.

"My mom misses me and she wants me to come back home. Sometimes she cries when I talk with her, wishing she could see me. It's hard. (My family) is hoping the best for me," says James.

Luckily, James' loneliness didn't last long. She has made a lot of friends at work and in the queer community, volunteering with Capital Pride and Pink Triangle Services.

"I love Ottawa. It's a small town but a big city at the same time. There's so much to see yet everyone knows each other," says James.

Since coming to Canada, James has travelled across the country. In Toronto, she enjoyed a play about her struggle against the US government, Get Yourself Home Skyler James.

But her favourite place is Montreal, where she says "the most attractive women in Canada" live.

James says she wants to go back to school to study photography and web design, but she cannot right now because the international student rates are too high for her. When all is said and done, she says she'd be happiest as a full-fledged Canadian citizen, so she could "sit back and enjoy the freedom."

"It's a worry. It's something I have to deal with. I may not be able to go home, but I still want to go to college," says James.

Despite facing a tough prison term if she is sent back to the US, James remains optimistic about her future. And she thinks about how her experience can help others.

"I was already this outgoing person in the States. Coming to Canada has opened my eyes and made me realize how much needs to be changed for equality of all people," says James.
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Comments

No Judge
I have no idea what her personal experience was , having left a homophobic community of my own for a larger centre was my way out. However, knowingly joining the army, with exceptionally homophobic policies makes me think Ms. James should have been more aware of what was in store for her in such a paternalistic, hyper-masculine environment.
But again, the army is how a lot of poor kids get post-secondary education in Canada and the United States, so who of us can judge not walking in her shoes ourselves?
SHE IS WRONG
She should have gone through channels to expose this threat to her. What she is doing is wrongand she is a deserter.
"Illegal war"
An earlier poster referred to an "illegal" war, but what would a legal war be?

Wars can be judged (subjectively, always) as just or unjust, but I find this idea of them being legal or illegal rather laughable. There are wars that are fought by agreement of a coalition, whether the "Coalition of the Willing," the auspices of the UN or even NATO, but I fail to see how that makes them more or less 'legal.' According to what system of law? International law doesn't have international acceptance, so even it has a legitimacy problem.
New meaning of the term
Maybe I'm relentlessly old-fashioned, but in my day we didn't call people who VOLUNTARILY joined the army/military industrial complex 'war resisters' any more than we called, say, people who worked in bakeries 'bread resisters'.
Proud to be Canadian
I welcome Ms. James to Canada, and fully endorse and support her in her bid for asylum. Shame on the Immigration & Refugee board who rejected her, and kudos to the judge who allowed her to come to Canada. It is people like Ms. James that our refugee system is there to help. I call on the Harper Tories to enact legislation protecting gay refugees, a job they have done poorly. At the same time, I would ask President Obama to completely exonerate this woman from charges of desertion. This woman fled in fear of her life and committed no crime. I am very proud to belong to this multicultural, equal and great nation called Canada. Truly, on the world stage, we can teach our American neighbours real Christian values: Love, Tolerance, Acceptance and Refuge.
not abuse
I would have to disagree with Must RemainAnon, while it is true that most war resisters here in Canada do not meet the definition of a refugee, however I do think they should be allowed to remain on compassionate grounds, anyways her case is different, she's received death threats from other members of the US army, probably others in her unit who she is supposed to deploy with and in such a situation her life is doubly at risk deploying to war zone with such people who could easily find the opportunity for her to be killed under "friendly" fire or denied needed help on the field leading to her death. Its not at all likely that she would receive protection from her commanding officers or any other government agent since she is in the army and not being kicked out despite being in violation of the don't ask don't tell policy. Under such circumstances she has a very good refugee claim in my opinion. That being said I do think all war resisters should be granted sanctuary here in Canada, I know if Canada were involved in an illegal war I'd want the US to offer sanctuary to our soldiers who decided they couldn't fight under such conditions so I think its only fair we do the same for our American friends.
how is she not?
She was in an impossible dilemma: either commit a crime or face a risk of deadly discrimination based on sexual orientation, in a situation where her superiors were refusing to apply the law (not even the discriminatory don't ask, don't tell law). Nobody should face such a choice. I hope Canada remains open to her. If the US refuses to protect and recognize the worth and dignity of its LGBT citizens I am happy to take them.
Clear Abuse of the Refugee System
Anyone who has read the Geneva Convention definition of refugee should know this person is not a refugee. She should be ashamed of herself for taking time and effort away from people with genuine risk. There are many many places in the US where she could relocate and live a happy life after she faces the consequences of desertion. Go home, move to Provincetown, SF, New York, Chicago, Miami, etc, etc, etc..
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