By Chris Rudisill
In 1989, U.S. Army Col. Margarethe (Grethe) Cammermeyer was undergoing a routine security clearance interview when she said four simple words, “I am a lesbian.” At the time, she was a highly decorated nurse and war hero on track to becoming a general.
The admission started an intense investigation and highly publicized discharge proceedings that would later become a television movie starring Glenn Close and based on Cammermeyer’s 1995 memoir “Serving in Silence.”
At the center of those proceedings was Col. Patsy Thompson who in 1992 was a decorated Army nurse, only two years away from retirement. Thompson had served her country for over 30 years when she was called to preside over the military review board that eventually dismissed Cammermeyer. No one knew that she was hiding the same truth — that she was also a lesbian. What unfolded changed the course of Cammermeyer’s case, which eventually led to her reinstatement and paved the way for the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. That story is told in the recent documentary film “Surviving the Silence.”
A Girl in Troy
Patsy Thomspon grew up in Troy, a small town of about 3,000 people in central North Carolina. She was born in the Great Depression and was the youngest of five. Her dad, like many others in the state, worked in the cotton mill. “We were very poor, but I didn’t know that,” Thompson said in the film.
Troy was generally a good place to grow up. Thompson describes its small-town charm with fondness but remembers the segregation of its Black residents at the time. Like many children of the South, she remembers walking to school and going to the local movie theatre or bowling alley. Her parents took her to church every Sunday. Religion played an important role in their lives.
During World War II, she and other kids gathered iron and bought victory bonds to support the troops. It is the first time that Thompson remembers feeling like everyone was part of that patriotism for the country. Her older brother, Fred, was killed in a plane crash while in the Navy, and when her younger brother, Jimmy, received his orders to report, Thompson remembers her mother heading to the recruiting office with the letter in hand. “You killed one of my sons. You’re not having this one,” she stated.
In 1951, Thompson graduated from high school, then headed to Charlotte Memorial Hospital School of Nursing where she graduated in 1954. She knew she wanted to join the military, even after the experiences of her brothers. “I always wanted to know what was on the other side of the mountains,” she said in the film.
She entered the Air Force Nurse Corps, and in 1956 she was assigned to Mather Air Force Base in California. She was respected by others on the base, and her Southern kindness was evident to colleagues. She knew she was different, however, and recalled a medic mentioning an invisible wall around her that others could not penetrate. “I thought, wow, he’s very intuitive because I was a homosexual,” said Thompson in the film.
She would soon meet her first partner playing basketball in the Air Force. They would be together for the next 24 years, and while she accompanied Thompson on many trips home to North Carolina, family assumed they were housemates. Thompson knew that coming out could mean losing her family.
After being assigned to a base in England, her long relationship would come to an end. She continued to keep her homosexuality a secret from her family and the Air Force. “I knew that whether I was in the military or wherever I was — whatever job I did, I was going to have to hide who I was,” Thompson said in the film. She went through a difficult time and life in the shadows was beginning to take its toll.
Enlisted women were regularly watched and when suspected of being homosexuals were immediately thrown out. President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10450 in April 1953, supporting the investigation of federal employees and servicemembers to determine whether they posed security risks. Under the order, thousands of lesbians and gays were barred from federal employment and over 5,000 people were fired under suspicions of being homosexual as part of what would later become known as the “Lavender Scare.”
As a nurse and officer, Thompson thought she had some level of protection, but remained guarded and even dated a couple of male navigator students as a cover.
Speaking in Code
In 1983, 30-year-old Barbara Brass decided to take a cross country trip and boarded a Greyhound bus in California. When she came back, she knew it was time to come out to herself. In those years, the gay and lesbian rights movement was still just inching forward. Homosexuality was still criminalized in many states, and AIDS was quickly becoming the highest priority of the movement.
Brass moved to Sacramento and started a business with her sister and soon came out to her family.
The next year, while attending a party, she met Thompson and the two started up a conversation that would lead to a loving relationship for years to come. At the time, Brass did not know the impact that Thompson’s military career would have on their lives.
Their story is one of “fierce love” said Cindy Abel, who produced “Surviving the Silence.”
In the early years of their relationship, the two did a lot of work around their house. “I wanted to make it a place that we could feel at home, and safe and comfortable,” Brass said. They replaced fences in the backyard as high as they could to make it more private. Brass built a secret passageway from their bedroom to the room that was supposed to be her separate bedroom. Brass recalled in the film: “It was not a good feeling living in a place that we considered our home, that we had to hide from people that came in here. But we had to do that quite often.” The fear of being outed was still very prevalent in both their personal lives and because of Thompson’s career.
“Those were our ways of hiding, covering, keeping safe.” In the film, Brass remembered the constant threat they felt. “We both were resigned to the fact that we couldn’t be out and that we had to really protect ourselves.”
Brass was the child of Holocaust survivors, and that history made her aware of the hate-fueled dangers of the world. Her family survived by fleeing Germany for Shanghai and eventually coming to the United States.
She joined Thompson on trips home and supported her as she rose to the position of First Army National Guard Chief Nurse in 1986. This required Thompson to move to Washington, D.C. where she would be stationed at the Pentagon — away from Brass. The two knew that she had to go alone, and under the cloak of secrecy, they exchanged gold wedding bands on a rainy night, shielded in the safety of their car in a parking lot before she left.
“Say nothing, do nothing, be invisible,” said Brass in the film. That was the necessary role as a lesbian partner of a military officer. Any chance of their relationship being revealed could threaten Thompson’s career. Even talking on the phone was difficult. They feared the lines might be tapped.
Thompson and Brass developed a code using the number “five” to throw off anyone who could potentially be tapping their phone conversations. When Brass would visit D.C., an evening rain would provide them the rare opportunity to walk close together under an umbrella without drawing attention from others, and airport goodbyes provided them the few public moments to hug.
“We’d carve out our little spaces and make a life,” Brass said. “It was second-class, but it got us through.”
In 1989, Thompson returned to California and remained active in the Army National Guard, and in 1992 a pivotal decision would shape the rest of their lives.
This Could Be Me
Thompson was on special assignment with the State Headquarters when she received a call asking her to go to Washington State and preside over a Federal Recognition Board. They needed a colonel for the job and Thompson wondered why Col. Cammermeyer, who was at the time the chief nurse for the State of Washington, was not asked.
A few days later, she received a large cardboard box full of classified information. The Federal Recognition Board was about Cammermeyer.
After an already illustrious military career, the Army colonel, Cammermeyer, had applied for the War College. She started active duty in 1963, had volunteered to go to Vietnam where she became the head nurse of the neurosurgical intensive care unit and later earned a master’s degree in nursing at the University of Washington while working at VA hospitals in the state. She became chief nurse of the Washington State National Guard in 1988.
During a standard top-secret clearance interview, Cammermeyer admitted she was a lesbian. “I thought it was a matter of speaking truth,” says Cammermeyer in the film. She was grilled for five hours straight, and six months later she was told that discharge proceedings had been launched against her.
The first openly gay U.S. Secretary of the Army (2016) Eric Fanning recalled in the film the hurt that this must have caused Cammermeyer.
“People join the military for a number of reasons, but one of the common elements is that commitment to service,” Fanning said. “To leave with that blemish that says you didn’t serve in an honorable way has a particularly profound impact on someone to whom service is important.” Cammermeyer had always believed that the Army took care of its own, but now it was not.
Thompson had a choice. Not accepting the appointment to preside would in essence out herself as a lesbian.
She knew that she had to move forward, and the only result would be to discharge Cammermeyer. But there might be another choice. For any court case to follow through appeal, evidence must be part of the official administrative record. It cannot be added later. This meant that Cammermeyer’s team had to make their case in front of the Federal Recognition Board, now headed by Thompson. Attorney Mary Newcombe and the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund were working with Cammermeyer to gather as much background and testimonial evidence that they could. They had no idea that a lesbian was working to give them more time.
Thompson held off as long as she could despite consistent calls from the general’s office. The easiest thing to avoid exposure would have been to run it through as quickly as possible and deliver what the Army clearly wanted — the discharge of Grethe Cammermeyer.
“I certainly did think this could be me,” Thompson said.
Duty, Honor, Country
On June 11, 1992, Cammermeyer was honorably discharged. After the case was over, Thompson recalled crying all the way back to her quarters. “I was hoping that something that I did or something that I said would help her case in the future,” she said. There was nothing she could have done to save Cammermeyer, but she made sure that the proceedings and the official record included everything about her career and character, noting that Cammermeyer was a “great American” she had admired for some time. She concluded that the regulation required her discharge.
“My first 40 years of my life, homosexuality was considered a mental illness until 1973,” Thompson said. “The whole time that I was active duty military, that was the story.”
In 1994, “Serving in Silence” was published, telling Cammermeyer’s story, and a judge ruled that her discharge along with the ban on gays and lesbians serving in the military were unconstitutional.
Filmmaker Cindy Abel met Thompson and Brass after screening her first film at Sierra College in 2013. The two, who were now married, were giving a speech the next day and had decided to go public about their relationship in front of a crowd of 500 at the Northern California college.
“I was just drawn in by the fact that ‘how do you stay together for 30 years, let alone when you have to pretend for much of that time that you’re not together — both for your partners career and your own personal safety,” Abel shared. She knew of the Cammermeyer story, but soon realized that Thompson had done the hardest, yet best possible thing she could have done.
They started filming in April 2014. “In the end it turned out to be one of those happy surprises,” said Abel. There are so many other stories like that of Thompson and Cammermeyer that one will never know. Telling their story, they enabled others to see that they could also do it.
Today, Thompson’s family knows that she is a lesbian but according to her wife, they don’t realize the remarkable success that she had in her career or the impact she has had on the rights of LGBTQ people to serve openly in the military.
When asked what Thompson would say to that little girl in Troy, N.C. she said, “Have hope and look to the future.”
There is a framed picture of “Rosie the Riveter” in Thompson and Brass’ home that says “Barb and Pat can do it.” Thompson hopes that people “can do the best they can and know that as long as our democracy is intact, they can be who they want to be and go where they want to go in life.”
“This is just a quaint little tale of two women who suffered through this, but it’s good for history,” said Brass in the film. “Today, the story is not a quaint little tale that we can march off into the sunset together smiling and holding hands and have all of our rights. We’re seeing them disappear daily.”
The two continue to protest for the rights of others and fight what Brass calls the “current regime” that threatens U.S. democracy. The pandemic has caused them to slow down a little as they shelter in place and limit their participation in protests, but Brass stays involved online helping to organize the RATT Pack, better known as Resistance Action Tuesdays and Thursdays, that has organized a series of peaceful protests against institutional racism, political corruption and discrimination against the disabled, people of color, immigrants, ageism and LGBTQ people.
After six years of filming, Abel’s “Surviving the Silence” is being screened at 18 virtual film festivals this year and recently won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at Winston-Salem, N.C.’s OUT at the Movies International Film Fest. It tells the story of “a fierce love” — a love for each other and a love for this country. The film “gives a window into someone’s life that we may not have even heard of or known about,” concluded Abel. Those are the stories she likes to tell, hoping that on some level they expand awareness about the need for equality in the current state of the world.
For more information about the film and to find screenings nearby, visit SurvivingTheSilence.com.
Chris Rudisill is a contributing writer for QNotes in Carolinas.