SURVIVING THE SILENCE: The Untold Story Of Two Women In Love Who Helped Change Military Policy

  • Director

    Cindy L. Abel

  • Country, Year, Length

    United States, 2020, 01:19:13

  • Category

    Documentary Feature

  • Format


  • Festival Year



Surviving the Silence tells the story of two women in love who played a part in changing military policy, shining light on the unknown history of how a closeted colonel forced to expel an Army hero for being lesbian did so in a way resulting in reinstatement via federal court.

Years before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; Colonel Patsy Thompson presided over the review board that dismissed Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer for being a lesbian. Although she had been in tough spots over the course of her 28-year service, this was the toughest. Presiding over this case forced Patsy to confront her own moral dilemma and her own secret: she, too, was a lesbian.

Margarethe Cammermeyer, a highly decorated nurse and war hero, was on track to becoming a general. During a security clearance interview, she truthfully answered when asked if she was a lesbian. This started an investigation which led to her eventual and highly-publicized expulsion from the Army National Guard. In 1995, Margarethe’s memoir was adapted as a television movie, which was executive-produced by Barbra Streisand and starred Glenn Close. But Patsy’s story has remained a secret…until now.

In addition to revealing history, Surviving the Silence explores the years before Patsy would be forced to preside over Margarethe’s military trial: the traditions that influence her, the experiences that shape her, and the moral code that determines the inevitability of her decision. She and her now-wife, Barbara Brass, candidly share how they wrestled with heart-wrenching choices in public and in private, hiding their relationship, speaking in code on the phone, and struggling to protect their love while preserving Patsy’s career.

Mary Newcombe, Cammermeyer’s attorney, describes knowing the foregone outcome of the military trial and developing a plan for the civil trials. As she shares preparing for the unavoidable military expulsion, she also speaks to the critical importance of the way Thompson managed the process at each stage and credited her with setting up the civil trial victory. Eric Fanning, the first openly gay Secretary of the US Army, offers a unique perspective of the role they played, having worked in the Defense Department as a closeted then openly gay man, including working to allow open transgender military service when he was Deputy Secretary of Defense.

An emotive human, cultural and political story of integrity, fear, resilience, courage, and love emerges through elegantly interwoven narratives, saturated with evocative visual social, and historical contexts. Surviving the Silence is a coming-out story like no other, deeply moving, troubling, revealing of unknown, policy-changing history – and powerfully inspirational.


Cindy L. Abel – Director – Breaking Through
Marc Smolowitz – Producer – House of Cardin, Political Animals, Kim Swims, Buried Above Ground, Weather Underground, Trembling before G-d
Cindy L. Abel – Producer – Xavier, Bullied To Death, Breaking Through
Cindy L. Abel – Writer – Breaking Through
Jesse Stephen Freeman – Writer – Somebody Else, Somewhere Else: The Raymond Andrews Story
Denise Gentilini – Music – Breaking Through, The Handjian Story, Conviction, Faces of Santa Ana
Michael P. Bruno – Director of Photography / Editor – Breaking Through

Director Statement

When I first met Patsy Thompson and Barbara Brass (at a reception prior to their coming out event), I almost choked as Barbara told me that Patsy was the one who had presided over the board that ousted Margarethe Cammermeyer. I was judgmental at first. How could she have done such a thing?! Ultimately, the journey of understanding I undertook in making this film taught me that the truth is always more complex and nuanced than imagined. I made this film to reflect the long history of LBGTQ conditioning – forced to hide, mask, conceal, and constantly look over one’s shoulder – as well as to celebrate a 35-year love that overcame impossible choices and beat the odds. In making this film, I seek to galvanize us all to prevent such an era of oppression and suppression from ever taking hold again and to wipe out its legacy– because the fight has not been won culturally globally, even if in some parts of the world it has been won legally. My intention is to inspire all audiences to believe that, no matter how small or how understated, social change can take place incrementally through personal integrity and courage. Every small ripple of personal change can quietly change the world. Had Col. Patsy Thompson not acted in the way she did – allowing an unprecedented amount of testimony and material at risk to herself – Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer’s story would just be one of tens of thousands of other discharged soldiers, instead of being the hero for equality that she became. Without Thompson behind the scenes, there is no Cammermeyer out front.

Director Biography

Director and Producer Cindy L. Abel formed Atlantis Moon Productions in 2007 to develop film-related projects that launch conversations and impact popular culture. Her first full-length documentary, the award-winning BREAKING THROUGH, was conceived in response to the high number of teens who were taunted because of being gay or perceived to be and committing suicide. Having struggled with coming out, Abel knew the importance of having positive role models and wanted to highlight openly LGBT leaders living authentic and fulfilled lives. In addition to BREAKING THROUGH, she produced BULLIED TO DEATH and XAVIER, two avant-garde Italian-American co-productions intertwining cinema, photography, and performing arts. Abel also combines her experience in managing multi-million dollar, award-winning communications projects with filmmaking to create videos and episodes for corporate and public affairs clients. Named GA Voice’s “Best Filmmaker 2019,” she previously served as Co-Chair of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, Vice-Chair of Atlanta Film Festival, and Vice President of Communications of Women in Film & Television Atlanta.