ALLEN YOUNG | DOCUMENTARY FILM | ‘Surviving the Silence’: An upbeat but convoluted story about three strong women

The film compels the viewer to think about the injustice of anti-gay discrimination in the context of military service.

By Allen Young | The Rag Blog | February 5, 2023

The documentary film Surviving the Silence is the intriguing story of three strong women — Pat Thompson, Barbara Brass and Margarethe Cammermeyer. I think viewers will experience it as both entertaining and informative.

 The film compels the viewer to think about the injustice of anti-gay discrimination in the context of military service.

As stated on the film’s website, “Along the way, two of the women candidly revisit their life together and how they found love against a backdrop of impossible choices. By film’s end, they find something even more important and unexpected — their own voices as out and proud lesbians, later-in-life social activists, and dynamic role models for others.” 

Full disclosure: In 2019, when the movie was a work in progress, I had the pleasure of meeting these three women (and the movie’s energetic director, Cindy L. Abel), as we were all participants in a “Pride of the Ocean” cruise devoted to gay and lesbian cinema.

The film was completed in 2020 and is now available on various screening platforms.

The film was completed in 2020 and is now available on various screening platforms including Amazon Prime.

As a longtime anti-war activist and early gay liberationist, I feel the need to remind Rag Blog readers of an important fact. In the early years of the modern gay liberation movement, 1969-72, the Vietnam War was raging, and just about everyone involved in the embryonic gay movement was opposed to the idea of anyone, gay or straight, male or female, participating in the armed forces of the “imperialist” United States of America.

But about 20 years later, the issue of “gays in the military” became national news. President Clinton revised the harsh anti-gay policy — absolutely no gay men or lesbians allowed — creating the “don’t ask, don’t tell” compromise policy. Gay organizations — and I agreed with them — endorsed the idea that gays should be allowed to serve in the military if they wished. The Pentagon, it was said, was the nation’s largest employer, and if we believed in civil rights, the military needed to be included. (I knew a handful of radical gays who continued to oppose gays in the military as well as same-sex marriage, but they were a tiny minority.)

Enter center stage, a tall, regal decorated colonel, Margarethe Cammermeyer.

Enter center stage, a tall, regal decorated colonel, Margarethe Cammermeyer, quite striking in her spiffy uniform, who, when seeking promotion to a higher rank, simply and candidly revealed that she was a lesbian. 

A television movie made in 1995 entitled Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story, tells about Cammermeyer’s expulsion from the military — and her eventual reinstatement following a victory in a courtroom battle led by innovative gay lawyers. You may remember this film with the talented actress Glenn Close in the starring role — and if not, you should find it and view it now either before or after you watch Surviving the Silence.

The movie I’m reviewing here today — Surviving the Silence — is essentially a “backstory” to the other movie (thus the play on words with the movie title).

Now, enter center stage Col. Pat Thompson. She was a decorated army nurse, with a high rank, who found herself in the very awkward situation of having to preside over the dismissal of Cammermeyer. She had little choice in the final decision, but cleverly used delay tactics to allow Cammermeyer’s legal team to develop a very strong defense. For this, she was later absolved by Cammermeyer of any guilt, as we see in the movie. 

An interesting aspect of the story is a detail of the romantic relationship of Thompson with Barbara Brass.

An interesting aspect of the story is a detail of the romantic relationship of Thompson with Barbara Brass, a Jewish pacifist who was conflicted about falling in love with a military officer. Brass concluded that Thompson was a nurse, thus a caretaker rather than a gun-toting soldier, and her military affiliation could therefore be “excused.”

Another twist is the fact that Brass is the daughter of Holocaust survivors while Cammermeyer is the daughter of Norwegians who participated in the anti-Nazi resistance. Cammermeyer was born in Norway and came to the United States as a child. 

 I like the way  the movie’s website tells the story, so I am quoting several paragraphs here to conclude my review and urge you to find the movie and stream it. You won’t regret it.

In 1992, Colonel Pat Thompson was a decorated army nurse, only two years away from retirement. She was asked to preside over the military review board that eventually dismissed Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer for admitting she was a lesbian. Although Thompson had served her country with distinction for over 30 years — from conflict zones in Central America to working inside the Pentagon — that appointment was perhaps the hardest. In that moment, she had to protect her own life secret: that she too was a lesbian and living privately with her life partner Barbara Brass for many years.

At the time, the story of Cammermeyer made national headlines, fueled in part by President Clinton’s push to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. In 1995, Cammermeyer published a successful memoir, Serving in Silence, which was further adapted into a made-for-TV movie executive-produced by Barbra Streisand and starring Glenn Close. Yet, Thompson’s part in the story remained a secret until 2013 when she and Barbara, now married, decided to go public for the very first time at a college speaking engagement in Northern California. Much to their delight, that speech received a resounding standing ovation, empowering them on their unfolding journey as OUT and PROUD lesbians who are visibly committed to using their unique life experience in pursuit of social justice and activism.

By chance filmmaker Cindy L. Abel was also in the audience that night, and she was touched deeply by Pat and Barbara’s courage. She knew instinctively that a compelling film about their specific journey could serve as the capstone narrative on a truly national story that most Americans might perceive as a closed chapter from the 1990s. From there, Abel began the work of filming Pat and Barbara’s love story under the banner Surviving the Silence, a project which has also inspired them to co-author their memoir.

Through personal testimonies told by the people who lived it, Surviving the Silence, delves deeply into the complex and closeted relationship of Colonel Pat Thompson and Barbara Brass and their basis for being such engaged activists for LGBTQ Equality. When it comes to their early years, they candidly share how they wrestled with heart-wrenching choices in both public and private, hiding their relationship, speaking in code on the phone during long separations, and struggling to protect their love while preserving Thompson’s career. Their story also includes the as yet untold aspects of the heartbreaking dismissal of Cammermeyer and reveals why Cammermeyer candidly calls Thompson a ‘hero.’ Cammermeyer makes a present-day appearance in the film in direct conversation with Thompson. Together, the three women offer up nuanced portraits of the difficulties that came with being a lesbian in America throughout the 20th century. This film honors them — and the countless women like them — who made similar sacrifices.”

At a time when there is a dangerous and perhaps growing political sentiment to send us all back in the closet, it’s good to be reminded of how truly horrific closeted life can be.  I’m confident we gay people and our many allies won’t allow that life to return.

[Allen Young has lived in rural North Central Massachusetts since 1973 and is an active member of several local environmental organizations. Young worked for Liberation News Service in Washington, D.C., and New York City, from 1967 to 1970. He has been an activist-writer in the New Left and gay liberation movements, including numerous items published at The Rag Blog. He is author or editor of 15 books, including his 2018 autobiography, Left, Gay & Green; A Writer’s Life — and a review of this book can be found in the Rag Blog archives.]

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2 Responses to ALLEN YOUNG | DOCUMENTARY FILM | ‘Surviving the Silence’: An upbeat but convoluted story about three strong women

  1. Perry Brass says:

    I think this is a very worthwhile review of an important documentary, but it does not cover one of the most important aspects of serving in the military. I know because I was a gay Air Force spouse for 3 years in the late 1970s, when the Military was still inflicting anti-queer Inquisitions on suspected lgbtq people of any gender. These Inquisitions, basically secret investigations and trials, were horrifying invasions of privacy, and destroyed the lives of thousands of people. For a year and a half, I actually lived with my partner only a few miles from the Airbase where he was stationed in a remote area, so I got to meet a large number of Service people. And what I learned was that few—extremely FEW—people join the Service for patriotic reasons. The vast majority join because it is a possible leg-up on the slippery American economic ladder. In other words, you can go from rot-gut poor to middle-class and even upper-middle-class through the educationsl opportunities and vocatioonal training offered by Uncle Sam. You can have a stable job life, and in the US’s crazy, boom-bust economy where job security is an illusion, the Military offers that: genuine job security. So the prohibition against queer Service members was a hammer-blow to young men and women who were lgbtq and economically deprived and insecure. This was especially true for POCs, Hispanics, and young men and women from rural areas outside urban opportunities. For these people, the Military can be a life-saver, and if you are cut out of it because of your sexual orientation, you might as well have your throat cut, too.
    This is something few people want to talk about, and that I experienced first hand as a military spouse who could see the machinery of the Military at both close range and from a cooler distance. Perry Brass, author and gay activist

  2. Allen Young says:

    Thanks, Perry, for offering your insights and experience.

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