two old woman with short white hair pose together smiling
Barbara Brass (left) and Ret. Col. Patsy Thompson. (Photo/Cindy L. Abel)

Documentary tells story of Sacramento couple’s forbidden gay military romance

In 1989, one question forever altered the lives of two career military nurses, led to the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and unleashed political activism rooted in the Holocaust.

“What is your sexual orientation?” a military court asked Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer during a security clearance interview as she sought to become a general in the Army National Guard.

“Being an honest person, she said, ‘I am a lesbian,’” said retired Col. Patsy Thompson, who worked alongside Cammermeyer. “With that one question, her life changed immediately.”

Because she was a lesbian, Cammermeyer was subjected to a 1992 dismissal hearing — a formality given a then-ban on homosexuals in the military that dated back three decades. Her story was documented in the 1994 book “Serving in Silence,” which was turned into a TV movie of the week starring Glenn Close.

Thompson’s life changed significantly, as well.

A military nurse with the National Guard’s 175th Medical Brigade in Sacramento for 35 years, she was asked to preside over Cammermeyer’s hearing. What wasn’t known at the time was that Thompson herself was a lesbian (closeted) in a long-term relationship with Barbara Brass, now her wife.

Thompson, who isn’t Jewish, and Brass, who is, used to communicate in code to avoid discovery by the Army, living in silent fear for more than 25 years as Thompson rose through the ranks. At their house in Roseville, they had a secret passageway built off the bedroom, according to the Sacramento Bee, so their late-night rendezvous would go unnoticed when they had house guests who didn’t know about their relationship.

That intriguing Cammermeyer side story, and the couple’s decision to go public with their love, led to documentary cameras turning to Thompson and Brass about six years ago. The resulting 79-minute film, “Surviving the Silence,” will be shown online for a 72-hour period from Sept. 24 to 27 in the Atlanta-based 2020 Out on Film Festival. It will be available for viewing only in Georgia and California.

“The entire time I was on active duty, being a homosexual was not acceptable,” Thompson said in a Zoom interview. “I had to be careful and pretend I was heterosexual. We knew what we had to do to get by.”

Brass, who grew up in Santa Clara, stayed behind and wrestled with her own emotions as Thompson, now 86, reluctantly headed to Washington for the Cammermeyer hearing.

“I knew I had to be careful not to out her,” Brass, 67, said. “She was a lifeline to our financial security, and her career, her life, was focused on reaching the top rank in the military.”

Filmmaker Cindy L. Abel said she has always seen her latest film as more than a military drama told against the backdrop of legalized homophobia. For her, it’s always been a love story.

“I was captivated by them,” said Abel, whose film had its premiere, virtually, about four months ago. “We talk about how love can win. Barb wanted to be out, except that she loved her partner so much, she put that aside for Pat’s dreams.”

The documentary’s producer is Marc Smolowitz, an S.F.-based director and producer whose 50 or so films include 2001’s “Trembling Before G-d” (gay Orthodox Jews and their struggles) and 2011’s “Still Around” (profiles of 15 people from the Bay Area living with HIV/AIDS). He became involved in the project after learning about the couple’s story from a local LGBTQ activist.

“We cannot get enough good stories about older queers,” Smolowitz said.

Thompson and Brass, together since 1984, first married in 2004 after S.F. Mayor Gavin Newsom’s monthlong directive to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. They tied the knot again in 2008 and live in Roseville. Thompson attends Jewish holiday events with the Brass family and even goes with Barbara to group meetings for children of Holocaust survivors.

Thompson and four military officers made what she called a “torturous decision” in 1992 to honorably discharge Cammermeyer after a three-day hearing. According to Thompson, not one shred of testimony was entered against Cammermeyer, whose commander implored, “Do not take this nurse from me.”

That unanimous decision was overturned after Cammermeyer appealed to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court, a move that eventually played a significant part in the 2011 repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which prohibited military personnel from discriminating against closeted homosexuals. Cammermeyer, 78, emerged as a gay rights activist and went on to receive many honors, including the Women Who Dared Award from the National Council of Jewish Women and the Hannah G. Solomon Award by the Jewish Women’s League.

Abel said the film touches on Brass’ family history and “how it shaped and informed how she shows up in the world.” Brass’ parents escaped from Nazi Germany to Shanghai.

“Survivors have dealt with things worse than I hope we will ever have to deal with,” said Brass, who, a day after President Donald Trump was elected in 2016, formed the RATT Pack with Thompson. RATT stands for Resistance Action Tuesdays and Thursdays, and weekly they are joined by as many as 100 others to protest against the Trump administration.

“We will fight and resist. We will not sit quietly,” Brass said. “Everything I thought would happen, and worse, has happened. It is like the leadup to Nazi Germany. My life, our lives, every person in this country who is marginalized — he will leave no stone unturned to eradicate us.”

Smolowitz called the documentary “the intersection of queer, Jewish and military. You see Barb’s responsibility to live her life from a Jewish perspective, connecting the dots post-Trump. You see her experience differently because of the Holocaust. When you own your story and speak the truth about it, there is nothing more impactful.”

“Surviving the Silence,” online Sept. 24-27. A live Q&A panel with the director, Thompson, Brass and Cammermeyer will be held at 5:30 p.m. Sept. 24 following a suggested 4 p.m. screening. $10.

Elissa Einhorn
Elissa Einhorn

Elissa Einhorn began her writing career in the Bronx at the age of 8. She earned a master’s degree in communications and journalism 20 years later. While Elissa worked for non-profits her entire career, including as a Jewish communal professional, she now enjoys working for herself as a freelance writer. Still, her most treasured role is that of ima (mom) to twin daughters who she is (finally) happy to count among her friends.