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.