Still Serving: ‘Surviving the Silence’ and LGBTQ Representation in the Military

Barbara Brass and Patsy Thompson’s ongoing story is one of love, commitment, and the power of individuals to make change.

Barbara Brass and Col. Pat Thompson (Courtesy)

In a film about the lives and service of a military officer and her spouse, Surviving the Silence, Barbara Brass reflected: “We just thought it would be a story of us holding hands, going quietly into the sunset. But it’s not.”

After the Obama administration had ushered in inclusive legislation for LGBTQ military members, the following one threatened to reverse everything. Although retired, Brass and her wife Col. Patsy Thompson were far from finished serving their country. As a now-married and openly lesbian couple, they were admittedly older, but most definitely bolder.

Let’s back up. 

The girl who would one day become the Army National Guard chief nurse and play a part in repealing the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell military policy was born into a family that took seriously its duty as Americans. During World War II, they paid the price when Thompson’s brother died flying a Navy plane. She decided that, to do her part, she would join the military as soon as she could, and signed up upon graduating nursing school. Her service would span a career in Europe, Central America and the United States.

Her hardest assignment came right before retirement: presiding over a military hearing to discharge her colleague Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer for being a lesbian. Faced with enforcing a policy that she opposed, against a war hero she respected, with a critical need to protect her own secret, she was torn between duty and conscience. Risking her own career, she conducted the trial in way that led to Cammermeyer’s reinstatement via federal court and contributed to the eventual change in military policy. 

Timeline of Changes in LGBTQ Military Policies:

  • 1953: Executive order 10450 barred gays and lesbians (Truman)
  • 1993: “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue” law, intended to allow closeted lesbians and gay men but over 14,000 members were discharged until the repeal (Clinton)
  • 2011: Repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue” law (Obama)
  • 2016: Executive order ends ban on openly-serving transgender troops (Obama)
  • 2017: Executive order bans transgender soldiers (Trump)
  • 2021: Executive order repeals ban on transgender soldiers (Biden)

A still from Surviving the Silence.

Retirement Provides Space for Activism

Once retired, Thompson anticipated a quieter life. But her devotion to service didn’t allow her to sit at home with her soon-to-be wife Barbara Brass.

A still from Surviving the Silence.

Brass wasn’t cut out for disengaging, either. While Thompson’s family was fighting World War II, Brass’ family was living it. Her parents were Holocaust survivors who escaped Nazi Germany to a Jewish ghetto in Shanghai then relocated to the U.S. She knew what it took for them to create this life and the low profile required to keep it. But she wanted more: to participate in anti-war protests, march for women’s equality, and when realizing she was a lesbian, to fight for gay and lesbian rights. Then, Brass the pacifist fell in love with Thompson the military officer. 

Like many military spouses, she put her desire to impact the world on hold. Because revealing their relationship would destroy Thompson’s career, Brass had to become invisible. She could not attend promotion ceremonies or sit with Thompson at her retirement celebration. Instead, she focused on finding ways to serve that wouldn’t raise suspicion—visiting people in hospice and volunteering at homeless shelters. Brass was biding her time.

Finally, Thompson retired. They could fully be themselves: out of the closet, happy and contributing. And that’s where their story could’ve ended—except for the 2016 upheaval that threatened everything they stood for. Everything they believed was America.

As many withdrew to the shadows for safety, Brass stepped forward. Emboldened by the freedom of being out, she formed the RATT Pack community, which stands for Resistance Action Tuesdays and Thursdays. The initial handful of people on sidewalks quickly grew to over 100 championing democracy. Counter-protesters showed up too: Self-described “walking hate crimes” physically intimidated participants, taunting Thompson and Brass by name. Undaunted, they practiced non-violence, ignoring the not-fit-to-print insults. 

A still from Surviving the Silence.

As they considered the treatment of women and LGBTQ people in the military, Col. Thompson said matter-of-factly, “It’s pretty much a reflection of how we’re treated in civilian life. Regulations, like non-discrimination laws, are vital—that’s where change starts. But while there are several openly lesbian or gay generals, the daily experience of a soldier is impacted by their commanding officer’s attitude and the atmosphere they create. That’s why many LGBTQ service members are still not out.”

Brass interjected: “It’s not exactly safe for women either!” citing the Pentagon report stating nearly 7 percent of female servicemembers report being sexually assaulted and 62 percent of women do not trust the military will protect their privacy.

“The culture needs to change and the regulations need to be applied regardless of the rank of the offender.”

Even if people think we’re safe now, we’re not, in a permanent sense. We have to fight to preserve what we have today.

Barbara Brass

Thompson added: “Interestingly, women are the only group of servicemembers protected by law (Women’s Armed Forces Integration Act, 1948). The other measures that provide inclusion (including desegregation) are policies, so they can be overturned by any Commander-In-Chief.” Brass jumped in: “Like Trump did to transgender servicemembers via a tweet!” 

 “We survived,” pondered Brass. “But we lived on high alert. Even if people think we’re safe now, we’re not, in a permanent sense. We have to fight to preserve what we have today.”

Barbara Brass and Patsy Thompson’s ongoing story is one of love, commitment, and the power of individuals to make change. At this stage of their lives—90 and 70—they are teaching and leading younger people to engage in their communities and fulfill the promise of America. Though no longer serving in the military, this couple continues to meet the very purpose the Doctrine for the Armed Forces of the United States describes: to advance and defend U.S. values. Values of fairness, equality and service.

“Surviving the Silence”, the film about Col. Patsy Thompson and Barbara Brass, is available on Prime Video, AppleTV+, YouTubeTV and other streaming services. More information at

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Cindy L. Abel is a filmmaker, writer and speaker who founded Atlantis Moon to tell stories that launch conversations and impact popular culture, including the award-winning Surviving the Silence.