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SILENT NO MORE: Interview with Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer
by Richard Knight, Jr.

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Cammermeyer at left in Philadelphia in 2005 (photo by Tracy Baim) the Serving in Silence cover, and Cammermeyer in a 2006 publicity photo.


What person in the GLBT community doesn't know of the heroic life of Margarethe 'Grethe' Cammermeyer, whose story of being forced to leave the military after 27 years of exemplary service for admitting she was a lesbian was so eloquently told in the TV movie Serving in Silence? The 1995 film, based on her autobiography, went on to win several Emmys; was executive-produced by Barbra Streisand; and starred Glenn Close as Colonel Cammermeyer and Judy Davis as her partner, Diane.

Now, Sony Pictures has just released the movie on DVD. It includes a making-of featurette and memorable footage from the film's Hollywood premiere that include remarks by Cammermeyer and Streisand as well as clips from the 1996 GLAAD Media Awards that honored the film and Cammermeyer.

In junction with the DVD release of the movie, Windy City Times recently spoke with Cammermeyer. Here are some highlights from the conversation:

Windy City Times: The first question has to be if anything has changed for gays and lesbians in the military in the 11 years since the movie aired?

Margarethe Cammermeyer: Well, one could say that there are 65,000—we're estimating—currently working in the military today. Since 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' was enacted in 1993, 11,000 gays and lesbians have been discharged and those numbers are very comparable to the 10 years preceding 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.' So, what we have learned is that gays and lesbians continue to serve in the military and suffer tremendous personal hardships in the service to their country and willingness to die in Iraq for the freedom for the Iraqis while they themselves have to serve under such tragic conditions.

WCT: You're obviously a lightning rod, the de facto spokesperson for this issue—whether you want to be or not ...

MC: [Laughs] I'm the oldest!

WCT: The oldest, OK ... the Grand Dame! So you must get e-mails and letters—I would assume on the QT—from men and women in the services all the time looking for advice.

MC: Yes, I do. Every time there is an airing, I get some sort of e-mail either questioning what somebody ought to do and, fortunately, the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) has made huge inroads into letting it be known that they're there to help gay and lesbian servicemembers who are being targeted and who feel that their careers or lives are in jeopardy; that's been a huge help. Of course, [to] anybody that writes me, I give them my two cents worth—'Say nothing, do nothing and contact the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network because they do phenomenal work to support gay servicemembers.'

WCT: I've read that the lack of recruiting numbers for the war in Iraq has in a quiet way turned the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy into more of a 'Keep it on the Down Low' policy. Is that what you've heard?

MC: You could be deaf, blind and dumb and they'll take you because they are in such dire straits, which again speaks to the irony of, 'Why do you discharge 11,000 trained troops when they are willing to stay in and serve?' While this talks about the discharges, it doesn't talk about those who don't re-up because [they don't want] to put up with the harassment any longer. Those are numbers I think that would be very difficult to ascertain, but why do you discharge these people and send people like me a letter saying, 'If you're interested in coming back into the military we have increased the retirement so you can stay on until you're 70?'

WCT: [Stunned] You're kidding! And never mind that someone like you is world renowned as the spokesperson against 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.'

MC: If you have the military specialties that the military needs, they will allow you to come back in. If you've had a driving under the influence [DUI] charge or minor felonies then you now can be blessed to be good enough to serve in the military and be cannon fodder.

WCT: The ironies just pile up. It's just so crazy.

MC: Yes.

WCT: We both, I think, know what our policy should be. Is there any chance of that happening? I think I know what the answer is with regard to this administration.

MC: It's not just the administration, in all fairness. If you think about it, Clinton wasn't able to do anything in his eight years, either. This is society becoming outraged or having congressional representatives that realize that military readiness is more important than personal bias and there is a bill that was introduced last year and they are continuing to get signatures on it. What Barney Frank told me about six or eight years ago was that he would not expect that it would come up in Congress until there had been at least two cycles of Democratic control so we'd better get our act together.

WCT: We had indeed. Let's talk about the movie for a moment. Can you please reiterate that charming anecdote that you shared with the audience at the movie's premiere.

MC: Are you talking about when I got a call from Barwood Studios and I had no clue who they were?

WCT: Yes.

MC: And the woman that I spoke with said that she was representing Barbra Streisand and I said, 'Yes, OK, I know that name. I just watched Yentl the other night.'

WCT: And I loved your rationale that a person who had played somebody like Yentl—who had been closeted, too, in another sense—

MC: Well, that was very true. I was pretty naïve when all of this took place and was in a certain amount of personal shock having been thrown out of the military. You know, when you believe in something so strongly—that the military takes care of its own—then why did they not take care of me after I'd been in for 27 years at that time? So it was a very, very painful time.

WCT: I know you said that you'd received many offers from other producers but something about what Streisand said convinced you. What was it?

MC: Well, as we were sitting there I was still feeling very awkward because even talking about sexual orientation was something that seemed to me to be very personal and that you don't have to have in a public forum and Barbra—she told me that I could call her by her first name—said, 'Well, wouldn't you like to have your life story on national television so that 25 million people could see it in the privacy of their own homes?' And I said, 'Uh, no, that really doesn't thrill me,' and she looked me straight in the eye and said, 'I consider this the most important social issue of the decade' and I remember feeling that this was the time for me to get out of the way and do whatever I could do to allow that process to take place. It really was a social issue and it really was something that needed to be changed and it really was a film that would go into and touch the hearts of people and I certainly think that it did all of those things. WCT: And still does. All the things that you went through 11 years ago people are still going through.

MC: Oh, absolutely—but it's just not in the military. I mean what is useful to think about is that if you're anti-military, it doesn't mean you should throw this struggle out the window because the same things occur and people serve in silence whether it be in their churches, in the Boy Scouts [or] as teachers ... there is still the stigma. In all but 18 states you can still be fired from your job just at a whim if somebody doesn't like your sexual orientation, so this is a salient issue that is part of a change that we have to have in American society as a whole. And I don't know that it's always that much easier in Europe—even though they say it is—because in Europe things are just not talked about because it's private.

WCT: What are you up to now?

MC: I have been involved in local politics. I ran for Congress in 1998 [and] lost that by five percent; since then, I have been the chairperson of the Island County Democrats out in the county where I live outside of Seattle on Whitby Island. I'm contemplating running for the state legislature's next cycle.

WCT: Oh, do it! Go for it!

MC: [Chuckles] Well, I probably will. We lost the vote for gay marriage here by our supreme court. They sort of passed it back to the legislature and, in addition to having improper representation here in our county, the issue of gay marriage needs to come up in discussion and it needs to be done by people who have a vested interest. So I think I'm going to run.

WCT: Absolutely. Well, it's been really great to be able to talk to a true American hero. Thank you for all you've done.

MC: Thank you so much.

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