Back in the Day: Serving in Silence

In recent years marriage has risen to the forefront of U.S. public debate about LGBT rights. But the signature controversy of the 1990s was our right to serve in the military.

A milestone in the ongoing battle against discrimination in the military, Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story, is now on DVD. The made-for-TV adaptation of Margarethe Cammermeyer's 1994 autobiography chronicles the decorated colonel's dismissal from the military solely based on her sexual orientation.

Margarethe Cammermeyer, Glenn Close and Judy Davis

Cammermeyer met her partner, Diane Divelbess, in 1988, when she was 46 — after she had ended a 15-year marriage to a man and had four sons. “If it wasn't for Diane I would probably be a general,” Cammermeyer often jokes.

The two women have been together 18 years and were married in Portland, Ore., in 2004.

Oregon has since nullified the same-sex marriages it briefly permitted, and Cammermeyer and Divelbess even received a refund check for their marriage license in the mail last year. “But we've got the certificate, and all our grandkids were at our Episcopalian ceremony,” Cammermeyer says, “and you can't take those memories away.”

Historically, dismissals of gay service members have plummeted during wartime.

Perhaps the need to recruit and retain troops outmatches the inclination to discriminate against a large segment. After Operation Iraqi Freedom was launched in March 2003, the dismissal rate for openly and purportedly gay military personnel dropped nearly 40 percent from 2001, just before the United States' invasion of Afghanistan.

But even though the United States is currently at war, anti-gay discrimination persists. More troops were dismissed last year under the ban on openly gay service members than in the year prior — making Serving in Silence as salient as ever.

Cammermeyer was 47 years old and chief nurse of the Washington National Guard when she outed herself as a lesbian during a security clearance interview in 1989. At the time she had served in the military for more than 25 years and was the highest-ranking officer ever to be discharged from the U.S. military for being gay.

She went on to complete a Ph.D. in nursing at the University of Washington in 1991.

When it originally aired on NBC in 1995, Serving in Silence swiftly boosted public awareness of anti-gay discrimination in the U.S. armed forces.

Although a brief lesbian kiss in the film raised some eyebrows, Serving in Silence is more notable for bringing the serious issue of discrimination in the military to the attention of a broad audience.

“It was the first time for many Americans that the issue of gays and lesbians in the military entered their living room and the national dialogue,” says Steve Ralls, director of communications for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a nonprofit organization that provides legal services to gay and lesbian military personnel, and works to end the discrimination and harassment they routinely face.

The Department of Defense issued a report in 2000 indicating that such harassment was rampant in all branches of the military. The following year, a “Don't Pursue” clause was added to the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy enacted during the Clinton administration.

That policy already contained a third clause — “Don't Harass” — but is generally referred to by the first two.

After a two-year legal battle, the Federal District Court in Seattle ruled that the policy that provided for Cammermeyer's dismissal was unconstitutional. She was reinstated and served an additional year in reserve status with the Washington State National Guard, then two years in inactive service. She retired in 1997 after serving more than 31 years.

Her distinguished military career includes a Bronze Star for service in Vietnam. She spent six months there as head nurse of a medical unit, followed by eight months as head nurse of the neurosurgical intensive care unit.