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Film Review: Surviving The Silence

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The untold story of two women in love who helped change military policy

Years before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Colonel Patsy Thompson was forced to expel Army hero Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer for being a lesbian

What no one knew was that Thompson was as well. The way Thompson handled the military trial, however, led to Cammermeyer’s re-instatement via federal court and eventual change in military policy.

While Cammermeyer’s memoir was adapted as a 1995 television movie by Barbra Streisand, Thompson’s story remained a secret…until now.

In addition to revealing history, SURVIVING THE SILENCE explores Thompson’s life with now-wife Barbara Brass. They candidly share how they wrestled with heartwrenching choices in public and in private, hiding their relationship, and struggling to protect their love while preserving Patsy’s career – and, how they emerged to become vibrant activists later in life.

In 1992, Colonel Patsy 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 thirty years—from conflict zones in Central America to working inside the Pentagon—that appointment was perhaps the hardest. In that moment, she had to confront her own moral dilemma and life secret: she too was a lesbian and living privately with her life partner Barbara Brass for many years.

Margarethe Cammermeyer, a highly-decorated nurse and war hero, was on track to becoming a general. During a security clearance interview, she truthfully answered when asked if she was a lesbian. This started an investigation which led to her eventual and highly-publicized expulsion from the Army National Guard. In 1995, Cammermeyer’s successful memoir Serving in Silence was adapted as a television movie, which was executive-produced by Barbra Streisand and starred Glenn Close.

Yet, Thompson’s part in the story remained a secret until 2013 when she and Brass, 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.

In addition to revealing history, the film explores Thompson’s life before the trial: the traditions that influence her, the experiences that shape her, and the moral code that determines the inevitability of her actions. Through personal testimonies told by the people who lived it, complemented by footage from personal collections and archival materials, SURVIVING THE SILENCE delves deeply into the complex and closeted relationship of Col. Pat Thompson and Barbara Brass.

They candidly share  how they wrestled with heart-wrenching choices in public and private, hiding their relationship, speaking in code on the phone during long separations as Thompson served at the Pentagon and in Central America, and struggling to protect their love
while preserving Thompson’s career – and, how they emerged from the closet to become vibrant activists later in life.

Their story also includes the as-yet untold aspects of the heartbreaking dismissal of Cammermeyer who makes a presentday appearance in the film in direct conversation with Thompson, and calls her “a hero.” Also featured is former Secretary
of the Army Eric Fanning and first openly LGBT head of a military service, who shares his perspective on the events and impact of Cammermeyer and Thompson’s actions in the eventual change in military policy.

Mary Newcombe, Cammermeyer’s attorney during the military and subsequent civil trials, examines their legal strategy and echoes her affirmation that the cases were won because of the way Thompson’s handled the matter.

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Tags: Real Women

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