BY Matthew Hays
December 02 2009 5:20 PM ET
Skyler James doesn’t hold back in her praise for Canada. “It’s awesome, I love this place,” she says. “It’s so much gayer than the U.S. OK, I take that back. It’s just a lot more open-minded.”
The 21-year-old lesbian has good reason to be happy. James fled the United States and her duties as a soldier in the American military in the fall of 2007 and arrived in Canada, broke. With the support of a Canadian peace group that supports American war resisters who want to remain in Canada, she applied for refugee status, citing homophobic discrimination as her reason for fleeing her native country.
James, born Bethany Smith, had her claim dismissed by a Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board earlier this year, but last month she won a reprieve, when she was granted a stay of deportation by a federal court, which also said she deserved another hearing with the board.
“My lawyer says this is very rare,” says James. “I’m thrilled that we have another chance to have my case heard. Going back to the U.S. will mean certain prison time for me.”
She says her troubles began almost immediately after joining the U.S. military. James, who comes from Wichita Falls, Texas, says her lower-income parents were eager for her to enlist. Worse, she says that recruiters — desperate to maximize their numbers — brazenly lied to her about what her obligations would be when and if she signed up. “They told me I’d never have to shoot a firearm and they said I’d never go anywhere near a war zone.”
But “I hated it right off the bat,” James recalls. “About six months in, someone saw me at a mall holding another woman’s hand. The Monday following, things got really bad. It was verbal abuse at first, 'There’s that lesbian!' Then it got worse. Eventually, on a daily basis, a soldier would actually pick me up and throw me to the ground. I often ended up with bruises.”