Back in the Day: Serving in Silence

SLDN argues that military policy disproportionately affects lesbians. Based on Department of Defense figures the agency reports that, for instance, although women comprised only 14 percent of the armed forces in 1999, 31 percent of troops dismissed that year because of their actual or suspected homosexuality were women.

This was well after Don't Ask, Don't Tell went into effect, and soon after a spate of failed challenges to the policy's constitutionality.

Even if official policy lags behind, public support for allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly has steadily increased. Ralls estimates it was at 50 percent when Serving in Silence first aired, while today there is an 80 percent approval rate.

"There's been a significant shift in public opinion since the film was first released," Ralls says. "It was a vehicle for fostering that change. It gave Americans an insider's view of what it's like to be gay or lesbian in the armed forces. As such, it was also instrumental in changing the hearts and minds of a lot of people."

The book that the film is based on was published one year before the film's release. Cammermeyer heeded the advice to write her own story before somebody else inevitably did, but she says she "wasn't expecting anybody to really care" about her memoir.

The movie version of Serving in Silence was awarded three Emmys: Glenn Close, starring as Colonel Cammermeyer, won as the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Special; Judy Davis, who plays Divelbess, tied in the equivalent supporting actress category; and writer Alison Cross won an Emmy for her screenplay. The film was nominated for three additional Emmys: one for director Jeff Bleckner, one for the six producers (including Close and Barbra Streisand), and one for the film's editor.

In addition, Serving in Silence won a Peabody Award and a GLAAD Media Award, was nominated for three Golden Globes, and was nominated for awards from the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America.

Cammermeyer and Divelbess at the GLAAD Media Awards in 1996

Cammermeyer emigrated from Norway when she was 9 and says she joined the Army at a time when it was "not the proper thing for middle-class daughters to do." Over the years she says she finally realized, "I tell my story to empower others to do the same." Now 64 years old, Cammermeyer continues to speak publicly; she will be the featured guest at a middle school this coming Veterans Day — an engagement that marks how far our culture, if not the military, has come in its acceptance of LGBT people.

She gets email on a regular basis from people throughout the world, especially whenever the film re-airs, and she makes a point of personally responding to all of her email. "They deserve the validation that someone is listening to them," she says. She is particularly sensitive to the fact that some of her correspondents live in countries where being gay puts their lives at risk.

Although Cammermeyer's wrongful discharge and the three-year investigation leading up to it predated Don't Ask, Don't Tell, there have been prominent cases of flagrant disregard for the policy since its inception. As recently as 2002, the Air Force was caught using recruitment forms that pointedly asked questions about sexual orientation.

In the year that followed, 37 linguists were dismissed from the Defense Language Institute for being gay, even though they specialized in languages seen as key to national defense.

There are documented cases of violent hate crimes against gay troops, such as that of Allen Schindler, who was murdered by his shipmates in 1992, and Barry Winchell, who was murdered in his sleep by fellow soldiers in 1999.

In 2003, the tenth anniversary of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Bill Clinton issued a statement calling for an end to the ban. A similar statement was issued later that year by 15 retired senior military officers.

With the DVD release of Serving in Silence, Cammermeyer hopes to see "a renewed caring for service members who happen to be gay or lesbian." She encourages anyone in need of or able to provide help to do so through the SLDN, which she lauds for its efforts to overturn Don't Ask, Don't Tell and to help service members who are being targeted for anti-gay discrimination.

"We're losing at least two people a day, being discharged for being gay. And they work side by side with gays and lesbians from other militaries throughout the world," she says.

"To then have to live with this stigma in our own military is outrageous."