Service and Sacrifice: Extremities of the Former Ban on LGBT Military Service Members
Originally published by Marriage Equality USA at marriageequality.org/service and sacrifice.Col. Pat Thompson and Barbara Brass/Photo: Surviving the Silence
If saying “thank you for your service” to veterans and military personnel has been reduced to a popular cliché in the last decade, grasping the excruciating choices LGBT service members faced prior to 2012 (the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell) should induce a deeply heartfelt, “thank you for your sacrifice.” Hiding spouses, enduring anxiety over the possibility of being found out, making friendships with extreme caution and being tasked with partaking in the process of removing other LGBT service members are just some of the indignities many endured.
If anything positive can be gleaned from such negative experiences, it may be that like with most adversity, strategic creativity, calculated subversiveness and a commitment to love can go a long way.
Col. Patsy Thompson rose through the ranks before DADT when “Homosexuality is incompatible with military service” was the long-standing policy. She and her now-wife, Barbara Brass, recall guardedly building a life together to protect themselves from prying eyes and speaking in code during long-distance assignments, having been warned their calls were likely monitored. Thompson served two tours in Panama and was stationed at the Pentagon as Chief Nurse of the Army National Guard.
Adding to the mix, Brass was a pacifist. And, at the time she met Thompson, she’d recently come out and wanted to be visible – a notion that had to be set aside. “I would have been more of an activist” says Brass of one of the sacrifices she had to make, to be with Thompson.
Added to the insult of the “no gays in the military” policy was the lack of spousal recognition (which continued after Thompson’s retirement and their own marriage in California). “I felt invisible – it hurt, but it had to be,” she says of the numerous recognition ceremonies, including Thompson’s retirement dinner. “If I had sat at the head table with her, as spouses do, it would’ve raised eyebrows and likely questions. We didn’t know what impact it could have and just a few days from officially retiring didn’t want to jeopardize her post-career benefits.”
It was only in private that the couple could enjoy intimacy. “We created a sanctuary” Brass says of the house the two shared together. Their home, set back from the street and surrounded in back by high fences, is a reflection of the life they literally constructed, as Brass rebuilt sections and remodeled each room. “This was my ‘tour of duty’ when Pat was away.”
Thompson recalls outing herself to another officer whom she believed to be dating an enlisted soldier of the same gender – both of which were prohibited. The woman’s immediate reaction was to deny any such relationship existed, leaving Thompson exposed and anxious she might be turned in. A few days later, the woman and her partner revealed that they were, indeed, a couple but had agreed not to acknowledge their relationship without talking first with each other.Col. Grethe Cammermeyer at Seattle City Hall/Photo: Steph Brusig, The Seattle Lesbian
But the biggest challenge Thompson would face as a closeted soldier was when she was tasked with presiding over the panel that would dismiss Col. Grethe Cammermeyer for being a lesbian. (Cammermeyer’s story was told in the TV movieServing in Silence, starring Glenn Close and executive-produced by Barbra Streisand.) Thompson’s deft handling of the tribunal – a personal agony for her – would enable Cammermeyer to successfully appeal her dismissal in federal court.
“What was she to do? She could have come out and then there would have been two of them getting kicked out. She could’ve presided over the board, but not pushed for anything beyond the inevitable discharge so she could avoid any suspicion,” says Brass. “Or she could fulfill her duty in a way that allowed Grethe the best possible defense. Pat was so brave that she repeatedly placated the General pressing her to hold the tribunal ‘now!’ allowing Grethe to gather the materials and testimonies that were eventually used in federal court and led to her reinstatement. I agree with Grethe when she says Pat is a hero.”
The bottom-line outcome – Cammermeyer’s dismissal – was never in doubt. “It was such a very difficult thing to have to do to one of my own,” recalls Thompson. Given the regulations and the other members’ agreement that Cammermeyer had violated them, Thompson spent an entire night crafting a statement ensuring an Honorable Discharge, full retirement and Cammermeyer’s reinstatement should the policies against gays and lesbians be repealed.
After much negotiation and compromise, Thompson got the other board members to sign onto these key items. When Cammermeyer appealed her dismissal, the federal court focused on her sexual orientation being the determining (and only) basis for her dismissal. Thompson remembers well the decision of the 9th Circuit Court of Federal Appeals. “The nation’s ban on gay military service was unconstitutional,” she says. “Col. Cammermeyer was met with open arms by her unit and she returned back to her old job. The judge was impressed with what I had said and that was an important aspect of his decision. That gave me some peace that there was a reason I had to be there.”
Looking back, Thompson muses: “It might have been easier to endure the impossible choices placed in our way by the very government I was serving if I’d known we’d reach this place personally and as a country.