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Escape to Canada


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."

Which prompts the question, Why didn't James file a complaint about such behavior? "There seemed to be no point. When a soldier would do it, a sergeant would be right there, doing nothing about it. I didn't get the sense anyone was going to help me."

Then things got even worse. James would find notes on her door daily, threatening physical violence. The final straw arrived in the form of a note in which someone threatened to break into James's room at night and beat her to death while she was sleeping. "Given that I was suffering through abuse already, I had every reason to believe that whoever wrote the note meant it seriously."

With two weeks until she would be deployed in Afghanistan, James and her fellow soldier Jeremy Daniel fled soon after she received that note, getting into a car and leaving the Fort Campbell military base in Kentucky. About an hour after leaving the base, James called a friend from a gas station and learned that the police were looking for her. She said she then felt like a "fugitive" and knew she had to escape. She and Daniel drove for 40 hours solid to the Canadian border, where they managed to cross without passports or birth certificates.

"The Canadian border authorities could see we were with the military, so they let us cross after seeing our military IDs. We told them we were just visiting for the weekend."

They contacted an Ottawa-based war resisters' group, who offered them shelter and legal advice. "I actually felt like I didn't have much choice but to leave," says James. "It had become so bad that I didn't know who I would trust when I would be deployed. I was more scared of the guys who were supposed to be watching my back than the guys I was fighting against."

As her case is before the courts, James has a work permit and is employed at a local call center. She says she'd ultimately like to get Canadian citizenship and go to college.

James has become something of a celebrity in Canada, interviewed by the gay press, on national TV, and in the daily newspapers, with most of the coverage being overwhelmingly supportive. (The Canadian military lifted the ban on gays and lesbians in the military over a decade ago.) Her friends had the first profile of her, in an Ottawa gay newspaper, framed for her.

James says she is heartened by the presidency of Barack Obama, and she certainly knows of his promise to end "don't ask, don't tell" and lift the ban on gays in the military. But she still views the situation as gloomy for American gays and lesbians wishing to serve in the military. "My lawyer put it well when she said that even if you change things in writing or on paper, it's much harder to change the attitudes people have," she says.

And she adds a few stern words of warning for young people who are considering signing up for U.S. military service, gay or straight. "Think very, very carefully before doing so. Be very wary of their promises of cheap education and travel opportunities -- everything comes with a price, especially this job. I still can't understand why my parents pushed me so hard to join -- Americans are strange. I'm like, 'What the fuck? Why would you want that for me?'"

James stays in touch with her family and has posted a video on YouTube offering support to soldiers in combat.

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Matthew Hays