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SURVIVING THE SILENCE. Colonel Pat Thompson and Barbara Brass
SURVIVING THE SILENCE. Colonel Pat Thompson and Barbara Brass

The feature documentary Surviving the Silence, directed and produced by Cindy L. Abel and produced by Marc Smolowitz, will screen virtually for Florida residents as part of this year’s OUTshine Film Festival. The documentary is the untold love story of two women who played an integral part in changing military policy.

Years before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, 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.

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

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.

However, 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.

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 present day 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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