It’s been 21 years since Col (Ret) Grethe Cammermeyer fatefully disclosed she was a lesbian during a routine security clearance — a revelation that changed the course of her life and her US military career. She was honourably discharged for her admission at a time when Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell didn’t yet exist.
Cammermeyer fought the discharge in civil court, prevailing when a federal district court judge declared it, and the ban against gays and lesbians serving in the military, unconstitutional.
She was reinstated in the National Guard. In 1997, after 31 years of service, she was retired with full military privileges.
Cammermeyer’s experience has been documented in a made-for-TV movie, Serving in Silence, the title of her autobiography.
Xtra recently talked with Cammermeyer, who is in Vancouver as a guest speaker at BOLDFest, an annual conference for older lesbians and dykes.
Xtra: Why did you choose to go into the military?
Grethe Cammermeyer: A number of reasons. First, my family and I immigrated to America when I was quite young and this was a way of giving something back to America, and another was that they had an opportunity for nurses to be able to do something in those days, beyond being a subservient healthcare provider, so it gave me that opportunity to serve. I am eternally grateful for that.
Xtra: What was it like to have a TV movie made about your life?
GC: Serving in Silence was the first time that a story about a lesbian was portrayed in a humanistic fashion rather than as a villain or somebody who was going to murder or die or something like that, but rather put a human face on it.
Xtra: When did you figure out you were a lesbian?
GC: After my divorce in 1980, through the next almost 10 years, I was feeling sort of alone. I was not interested in being in a relationship with a man and sort of left it there. When I met Diane [Divelbess], and that was in 1988, it was like we had this emotional connection from the very beginning. All of those questions you may have had throughout your lifetime are suddenly answered. When I was growing up and married with children, there were no role models depicting gay couples together in sort of normal families. This is a very different time. I think it might be very difficult for people of today’s generation to be able to imagine what it was like in the ’50s and ’60s when you could go to jail or end up in a mental hospital or be ostracized.
Xtra: It’s important to remember these stories.
GC: It’s like every other journey for civil rights. You have to remember or be reminded of what it was like so you don’t take it for granted.
Xtra: Why do you feel it was important to tell the military you were a lesbian when you were being promoted?
GC: I came out as part of a top security [clearance interview] because I wanted to go to the War College and become a general. To not be truthful was just incomprehensible on the one hand, and I knew that when I had been in the military for all these years, policies changed because people spoke up. At first women couldn’t be married in the military, then they couldn’t have children and be in the military, and prior to that we didn’t have an integrated military. There were people who took [up] the challenge and made policy changes occur. It just seemed that after 25 years in the military I already had a proven track record. For me to be discharged based on my honest statement was absolutely outrageous. I felt it must be my turn to stand up.
Xtra: How supported or alone did you feel with other servicemen and women?
GC: It was not at all professional to talk about anything in terms of my personal struggle with the military. It wasn’t until after I came out and became public and Serving in Silence was shown and the book came out, that all of a sudden I realized how many thousands had been discharged before me. Since the enactment of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, we’ve had another 14,000 discharged.
I decided I was going to fight [my] discharge. It was a total of two and half years before a military administrative board — sort of like a court martial — where they said because of the policy that existed they were forced to recommend my discharge based on my statement.
We immediately went into federal court. Twenty-five months later, the courts ruled it was unconstitutional because I was denied equal protection.
Xtra: Have things changed that dramatically since then?
GC: What has changed is that 70 percent of Americans are now saying that there’s no reason why gays can’t serve openly in the military. This summer, the House of Representatives voted to overturn Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. This month, the Senate is supposed to take that up.
Hopefully that will occur and then the president will sign the law pending recommendations of generals. This is supposed to take place before Dec 10. We’re cautiously optimistic.
Xtra: During his campaign, President Barack Obama called for a repeal of DADT. But it’s been almost two years and the policy is still in place. Many gay rights activists have expressed disappointment with him.
GC: You have to have a nation and a Congress that will act on it. The minute you deal with issues with being gay or lesbian then it becomes a fundraising rally for fundamentalists. I think the fact that more people are coming out means that it’s less and less of an issue, that it really is the far right churches that are carrying the banner for traditional families and [saying] gays will undermine morale and discipline and all of these things. That can’t be true if you have 65,000 gays and lesbians serving in the military today. It’s a paradox. It’s undermining the morale and ability to be mission-ready by discharging competent people.
Xtra: Are you patient in saying the president is doing his best?
GC: Congress has made this law and Congress has to overturn it and repeal it before we can move on and get to the business of being in the military and doing the best for America.
It’s not the president. This is now Congress. The senate has to act. The president has already said he’d sign it.
There are also people who don’t understand the politics of the US. I was in DC in June and was invited to the White House and was briefed about the status of DADT. I was feeling that they are really working hard to get this to happen. But classy people don’t do things in the press.
They can only work so fast and it’s not like we’re the top of the list. We are in our own mind because every day we lose two more gay troops. In the grand scheme of things, you’re dealing with an entrenched military that sort of has to be massaged and worked. It has to be done before the November election, otherwise I would question whether it will get done because we don’t know what the makeup of Congress will be.
Xtra: What are your thoughts on former American infantry officer and gay rights activist Daniel Choi?
GC: He made himself high profile and was subsequently discharged from the military. We all have different ways of fighting this battle, and if you think back to the days when AIDS was a major issue and the funds for AIDS research didn’t take place — if it weren’t for ACT UP — if it weren’t for them the active community working on AIDS would not have been taken seriously, so you need people from different perspectives and you fight your battles the way you choose.
Xtra: What issues do you think are important in the queer community apart from military issues?
GC:There’s going to be lots of people who could care less about the military, especially in today’s world. But this isn’t about the military. It’s about a government which has laws that discriminate against groups of their people, and for that reason everyone should be outraged, and you should take that to the next stage. At least in America, where you don’t have the right to create a nuclear family. Because you have a Defense of Marriage Act that prohibits gays and lesbians from being married and recognized federally, all the benefits for family, retirement and what happens after death are denied to a group of people based on sexual orientation. These are barriers to equality that we have to overcome with our presence and being visible.