A Documentary

Amos Lassen

Colonel Pat Thompson was asked to preside over the military review board that eventually dismissed Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer for admitting she was a lesbian. This was in 1992. Thompson had served her country with distinction for over thirty years yet this appointment was perhaps the most difficult because she had her own secret— she too was a lesbian and living privately and she and her life partner Barbara Brass had been together for many years. 

The Cammermeyer  story made national headlines, probably because of President Clinton’s push to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. In 1995, Cammermeyer her memoir “Serving in Silence”and it was adapted into a made-for-TV movie executive-produced by Barbara Streisand and starring Glenn Close. However, Thompson’s part in the story stayed secret until 2013 when she and Barbara who were then married, decided to go public for the very first time at a college speaking engagement in Northern California. They received a standing ovation and this began their journey of the pursuit of social justice and activism. 

It just so happened that filmmaker Cindy L. Abel was in the audience that night, and what she heard touched her. She felt that a film about her journey could serve as a powerful inspiration and Abel began filming Pat and Barbara’s love story and this became “Surviving the Silence”. The film includespersonal testimonies from the people who lived the experience. It deeply probesthe complex and closeted relationship of Colonel Pat Thompson and Barbara Brass and their basis for being such engaged activists for LGBTQ Equality. We see how they wrestled with choices publicly and privately during the early years when they hid their relationship, spoke in code on the phone during long separations, and struggled to protect their love while ,at the same time,  preserved Thompson’s career. Their story also includes the untold aspects of the heartbreaking dismissal of Cammermeyer and reveals why Cammermeyer candidly calls Thompson a ‘hero’. Cammermeyer appears in the film in direct conversation with Thompson. The difficulties of being a lesbian in America throughout the 20th century is very, very evident.

The film starts with Pat Thompson and Barbara Brass’s story. Thompson’s career was serving in the Army.  She moving up the ladder and was given important assignments all over the world.  She and Brass had been in a closeted relationship for many years and although they lived together, they were secretive about almost everything about their relationship. But then when she was just two years away from retirement, she got the order to preside over the military review board that was investigating  Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer.

A lesbian in charge of the Inquiry turned out to be  the best thing that could have been even if it meant discharging Cammermeyer. Thompson and Brass decided to go public after they married in 2013. Their decision to do so did a lot for the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” movement and rights for the entire LGBTQ movement as well as bringing about an amazing turn of events for this private couple to share this experience.


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