In the case of the military, a closet hides not just the identities of gay, lesbian and transgender service people, but the skeletons of an institution’s refusal to offer dignity to non-heterosexual personnel.
In Cindy L. Abel’s detailed doco, Surviving the Silence, Col. Patsy “Pat” Thompson – a high-profile nurse who had served her career in-the-closet – denotes her thirty years of service in the American military. Thompson’s achievements, reflected in rank and decorated military honours, would not have occurred had she been open about her sexuality. Her discretion, a sign of systemic oppression towards the LGBTQ community, protected not only her career but her and her partner’s (Barbara) livelihoods.
It is clear that Thompson has always carried herself with the spirit of a soldier. Her involvement in the army is a natural fit for her stoic demeanour. The depth of which is captured impeccably by Abel as a series of interviews between Thompson, Barbara, and fellow military personnel who continue to fight for equal treatment.
Thompson observed the hardships of inequality from early youth. Raised in 1950s North Carolina, a setting deeply ingrained in religion, the inequalities felt by women (already troubling enough) amplified towards those attracted to the same sex.
The film contrasts Thompson’s experiences with the history of oppression received by LGBTQ military personnel. Intersecting this are animated stills which reveal the policies and laws which denied queer service people parity. (The inclusion of animation only feels out-of-place when sound clips and introductory text resemble the opening credits of 24.)
Where Surviving the Silence strikes hardest is in its optimism for better. It chooses to reflect on the past not as a means of indignance (however appropriate that would be), but in recognition of the disadvantages overcome by military personnel. The defining example of this being the film’s later coverage of Thompson’s involvement in the case of Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer; an openly gay military official who was dishonourably discharged because of her sexuality.
Despite their problematic experiences, the individuals front-and-centre of Surviving the Silence possess ample respect for an institution that had long deprived them of their dignity. The film does not condemn nor position interviewees as being complicit in facilitating the cycle of mistreatment, but rather, reinforces their deep sense of duty and determination to better the world. The result culminates in being a thoughtful homage to queer service-people.