Close Encounters of the Celebrity Kind...
Silent No More -- The Margarethe Cammermeyer Interview
Expanded Edition From the 9/20/06 issue of Windy City Times
by Richard Knight, Jr.
Cammermeyer at an event in Philadelphia in 2005, the Serving in Silence DVD cover, and with her partner Diane Divelbess
What person in the GLBT community doesn’t know of the heroic story 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, 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
In junction with the DVD release of the movie, I spoke with Cammermeyer. Highlights from our conversation:
WCT: I have, of course, with so many others, followed your story and was so moved by Serving in Silence when I first saw it and it’s
really great to be able to talk to a true American hero. With that in mind, I would say that the first question has to be has anything
changed for gays and lesbians in the military in the 11 years since the movie aired?
MC: 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 ten years
preceding “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and 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, okay. The Grand Dame! So you must get emails 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 email 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 service members who are being targeted; who feel that their careers or lives are in jeopardy and that’s been a huge
help. Of course anybody that writes me, I give them my two cents worth – “Say nothing, do nothing, contact the Servicemembers
Legal Defense Network because they do phenomenal work to support gay service members.”
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?” and while this talks about the
discharges it doesn’t talk about those who don’t re-up because of not wanting 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,
MC: If you have the military specialties that the military needs they will allow you to come back in. As officers it used to be that you
had to be in the 30s and now that’s up to 42 – if you want to join the military at age 42 then you can still join. If you’ve had a
Driving Under the Influence charge or minor felonies than you now can be blessed to be good enough to serve in the military and be
WCT: The ironies just pile up. It’s just so crazy.
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. A
military readiness reauthorization bill act and there’s information about this on the SLDN website as well. The main issue there is
why should we discharge good servicemembers when we want to have the military ready to do their work? So this is trying to overturn
the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy through legislative action. 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?
MC: And the woman that I spoke with said that she was representing Barbra Streisand and I said, “Yes, okay, 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: You remember that?!
WCT: Yes – and I was happy to see that it’s on the DVD.
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: So then you and your attorney went down to meet Ms. Streisand and during this meeting somehow she convinced you. I know
you said that you’d received many offers from other producers had come in. But something about what she 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.
MC: I think looking at it now it does seem a little naïve from many perspectives because all of our gay characters on television now
but I think if you can go back in time to what it was like 15 years ago. Being out was really a rare thing and now it’s not uncommon
and I think in many ways this was the beginning of people taking responsibility for coming out and being true to themselves.
WCT: And certainly, though it’s so common in mainstream culture, it’s not in the Army. It’s still far from okay to be out. 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 if you’re anti-military 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, 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: That’s true in Chicago, a metropolitan city as well. You’re absolutely right – there’s still a bit of a moment where you try to
gauge what someone’s reaction will be.
MC: Yes but if we don’t challenge everything that’s said and done that makes some presumption about our heterosexuality then
WCT: Also true. The DVD has clips of you on set during the making of the film. What do you recall about it? Was it dazzling to be
there with Barbra Streisand and Glenn Close and Judy Davis?
MC: You know my mission there was to make sure that if Glenn had any questions – not how to act – but how to be a military officer
that I was there. For me the most important thing in terms of – I had already given up on some of the ownership of it because they
wrote the script. I was on set about 16 days and was there so that if Glenn had any questions—well I remember one scene where
she’s just been discharged from the military and we go out to the Pride event because this is what really happened. I had just been
discharged, Seattle opened its arms and I was invited to be the Keynote at the Gay Pride event and Glenn came and said, “Now, I
don’t understand. How were you feeling at the time all of this took place?” and so I told her what it was like to have been thrown
away by the military as persona non grata and then all of a sudden coming into a community that welcomed me with open arms. It
was really, really humbling and I told this to Glenn and she went up in front of the camera and caught the emotions as though she
had been walking in my shoes. To me, certainly, it speaks to what a phenomenal actress she was in the movie.
WCT: What are you up to now?
MC: I have been involved in local politics. I ran for Congress in 1998, lost that by 5% and 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 and 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, again, I’m so honored that you took some time today to speak to us and thank you.
MC: Thank you so much.
On the web: www.cammermeyer.com www.sldn.org