An Ordinary Sailor
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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