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Profiles in Patriotism

James Reilly

An Ordinary Sailor

by Denny Meyer

Recently, in 1963, a good young Irish Catholic lad, James Patrick Reilly, enlisted in the United States Navy.  He'd been an alter boy, attended St. Joseph's grade school and Monsignor McClancy High School and later William Cullen Bryant High School, all in the Borough of Queens in New York City.  In his Junior year, at age 17, he quit school and joined the Navy, as a process of growing up to be his own boss, as he put it.  Like many Vietnam Era vets, at the time he joined he knew of his gay feelings but was not ready to accept that he was gay.  He thought that perhaps the Navy would help him to grow up out of those feelings.

He went to boot camp at the Great Lakes Naval Training station in the deep of Winter.  You really have to have been there and done that to understand the cold hell of that place at that time.  The bitter Arctic blasts blowing down from Hudson Bay, across the lake, and into the camp were nothing compared to the harsh wartime procedure of taking civilian boys and turning them into men.  Those of us who survived that all agreed in rueful retrospect, "It builds character."  Young James Patrick Reilly excelled; he finished in the top ten of his training group.

He then volunteered for submarine school, where only the most psychologically fit are accepted, where fifty percent fail to complete the training.  He completed the course amongst the elite graduates who were the only ones to be assigned to the new class of nuclear subs.

He was a member of the commissioning Gold Crew of the Polaris sub, the USS Ulysses S Grant, SSBN 631, in Groton Connecticut.  In his two years with the boat, he served aboard her as a Battle Station Helmsman and torpedo man, through the Panama Canal to Hawaii and Abura Harbor in Guam, an on Pacific duty.  In an ironic memory of his days at the helm, he recalled that a navigation officer, peering through the periscope, commented, "That's the straightest wake I've ever seen!"  Little did he know.

Later, Jim was transferred to the auxiliary submarine rescue ship Coucal, ASR8, in Hawaii.  By this time he'd come out to himself.  He had joined the Navy to find himself, and he did without guilt or shame.  To this day, he never found out how it happened, he came under suspicion and was investigated by the Office of Naval Intelligence which eventually determined that he was a 'class 2 homosexual.'  To this day he's indignant at that designation; "Class Two indeed!" he growls, "I've never been anything but a first class fairy!"  The classification, at the time, had to do with who was top or bottom, incredibly enough; and the numerical designation appears to have been counterintuitive.  During the drawn out discharge proceedings, he was first sent to a holding barracks in Pearl Harbor, and later to Treasure Island in San Francisco, of all glorious places, where he was one of 300 sailors all being discharged for homosexuality.  The abuse of the guards who said such things as, "all right ladies, line up," was tempered by the weekend passes which allowed them to go into the City.  "The most beautiful thing that I saw, on leave in San Francisco in those dark days," he said, "was two men walking down the street holding hands as if it was the most natural thing in the world; it was."

James Reilly, former alter boy, in the top of his naval training class, Polaris submarine helmsman, superlative seaman, was discharged as 'undesirable' simply for being gay.

When he returned home to New York, he became an early gay rights activist.  He went on WBAI radio's The New Symposium, moderated by Bayard Searls, where he described his profound annoyance at the rejection of his good service to his nation because he was gay.  The other guest on that program was Barbara Gittings who, along with Dr. Franklin Kameny, has been heralded as a founder of our rights movement in the film Gay Pioneers.  Inspired by what he said, she advised Jim to contact Dr. Kameny who was looking for test cases of service members discharged for being gay for a series of lawsuits.

Dr. Kameny worked tirelessly on Reilly's case, along with others.  In 1984, after 18 long years, he got a letter from the Department of Defense informing him that his discharge had been upgraded from undesirable to Honorable.  He feels that the long hard work was worthwhile in that those who were discharged later were far less likely to receive less than honorable discharges due to homosexuality.

In the intervening years, he became a New York City Subway conductor and eventually a motorman, fulfilling every good boy's dream of driving a steel train through the tunnels of Gotham.  Even then, his activism continued, as did his suffering discrimination, alas.  He filed papers to have his life partner covered on his motorman's health insurance, which was entitled by New York City's early partner benefits laws.  Yet, he was denied, his union would not support his claim, and again he was engaged in a long legal battle for redress of discrimination.  Eventually, yet again, he won; the MTA was determined by the New York State Supreme Court to be in violation of non-discrimination laws.  Shortly thereafter, however, he was fired 'for being insubordinate;' a bureaucratic tactic of discriminatory harassment.   Later, he became a City Hall insider working on the staffs of City council members and in the Public Advocates office.  His dogged determination to pursue his discrimination cases has contributed to making life more equal for gay and lesbian Americans.  In New York City, now, partner benefits are more a matter of course.

Currently, Jim Reilly is Vice President of American Veterans for Equal Rights New York (AVERNY)*.  He was instrumental, in 2005, in AVERNY's successful effort to have the New York City Council pass the nation's first city resolution urging Congress to repeal the Don't Ask Don't Tell law.  In that endeavor, he earned the title 'AVERNY's Rottweiler' for his persistence in pursuing the votes of reluctant council members.

*Note: Denny Meyer, the author of this article, is the president of AVER-NY