Margo Moon interviews COL Grethe Cammermeyer

Interview by Margo Moon originally posted at “Do Ask, I’ll Tell,” reprinted with permission.

Most of us have a degree of control over how and when we come out as gay or lesbian. Not Grethe Cammermeyer. In 1989, an ambitious Col. Cammermeyer had applied to the War College and was in the middle of an interview for top-secret clearance when she had to decide between making the truthful statement that she was a lesbian or denying that truth and advancing toward her dream of promotion to general.

Her integrity won her a court martial and eventual separation from the military she had dedicated her life to, earning among many other honors the Bronze Star for Meritorious Service in Vietnam. But it also led to an autobiography, Serving in Silence, which was named Outstanding Book on Human Rights in North America, followed by a triple Emmy Award winning movie of her autobiography, starring Glenn Close.

As she continues to speak out for the rights of others, particularly gays and lesbians in the military who are still forced to serve under the untenable circumstances of the dysfunctional Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, Grethe Cammermeyer is definitely a woman with something to say, so let me just get out of her way and let her say it.

MM: You’re close to the action surrounding DADT these days. What’s happening out there to result in so many talented service members still getting caught in the DADT trap and discharged against their will?

GC: Unfortunately there is the arrogance of free speech belief by many young service members. So they go into the military and let their buddies know that they’re gay.

When your friends know, there is always the potential for a backlash if someone wants your job, wants sex with you, wants to follow the rule explicitly, is a fundamentalist, or is someone who doesn’t understand that it’s quality of service that counts.

MM: Which brings up the point that we all call the law Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, but that’s a little bit misleading, because they will ask, and they are always probing and asking, correct?

GC: They are not only probing and asking, but there are witch hunts. There are lists of people identified as potentially gay because of who they hang around with, because they play softball, or if they live off base and their roommate happens to have short hair and looks like she might be a lesbian.

MM: Reading polls, you’d think that the majority of straights in the military are comfortable serving alongside gays and a majority of voters want DADT repealed, so where does the impetus for these witch hunts come from? Does it come from the more than 1,000 flag and general officers who signed that letter to President Obama and Congress in support of keeping DADT in place?

GC: Who were born in 1905?

MM: (laughing) Maybe so.

GC: Apparently there are many people who have been retired for a number of years who are on that list. They are old, out of date, don’t have a clue, and are just engendered in their bias from past ignorance. So I really discard that letter altogether as being irrelevant. It’s not as though the Center for Military Readiness went out and got signatures of active duty personnel today.

Because senior military personnel haven’t had current personal exposure to gays and lesbians, they live with their preconceived ideas. Just like us old folks.

So, I think that’s one part of it with regard to those thousand old fogies who signed onto the letter of support of the DADT.

And the thing is that when you’re in the military, just as with those senior officers, there is no way today to educate on the insignificance of a person’s sexual orientation. People can’t come out in the military and say ‘You know, I’ve been your adjutant for the last four years and it’s never been an issue.’ Or ‘I’ve just gotten the Bronze Star for valor in Iraq, and now I’m not good enough to serve?’ There is no opportunity for those discussions to take place.

We’re just not there if civil rights and the right to serve is going to have to be permitted by senior military personnel.

Social justice and human rights don’t come from those who have the power to deny it. They come from the people who are most affected and from their allies realizing that we need to change policy and that some of these issues are not worthy of a country as great as the United States of America.

MM: Turning to politics and President Obama, what do you think of the apparent disconnect between his very, very strong support of gays and lesbians when he was a candidate and now his actions since taking office, which are beyond passive. He’s actually been unsupportive in many cases.

GC: I think there’s a certain amount of political naïveté that we should have learned from the Clinton era, in that we have expectations of being treated equally and that people may not be as powerful as they think they are or as they would like to be. So the need for developing a cadre of supporters becomes more and more important.

If you think about it, what can he, as one man, do? Well, he could make a strong statement to Congress about wanting to overturn this existing law and moving forward with the Military Mobilization Enhancement Act for him to sign. He could write a letter to the secretaries of the various services to stop enforcing the discharges. But beyond that, unless there is real support in Congress, and for him to lose the health care debate because of gays in the military, the tradeoff there is pretty rough.

Yes, we all believe in our civil rights and it needs to happen, but I’m not sure he has the political capital, until we have a Democratic Congress that has a spine, to make this happen.

Obviously they’re doing political things behind the scene, but you don’t hear it. You don’t hear the passion. You don’t hear the commitment. You hear ‘Let’s not move forward, because of the risk of a filibuster,’ rather than ‘Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.’

Let’s make these people accountable and see if we can get the population at large to say this needs to change.

We’re moving in the right direction. We’re getting more co-sponsors for the Military Readiness Enhancement Act (MREA). But I’m concerned we’re not going to get the momentum this cycle because of all the other issues and the frank racism rearing its head that I don’t think anybody was expecting.

This does not have as much to do with the military per se as it has to do with the fact that our federal government has a law that separates out and discriminates against a group of people based on sexual orientation regardless of their ability to serve this country. And that ought to be not only embarrassing, but it is so obnoxious that it ought to be something we would all want to have changed. To me, it is no less offensive than to have someone three-fifths of a person.

MM: Okay, bottom line, as a pioneer in this fight, what do you see as the absolute surest route to repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell? I think you’ve already hinted that it’s getting MREA pushed through.

GC: I think the quickest way for this to be solved would be to enact a draft. Enact a draft, because you need more people in the military, and have it so that gays can’t go in. It will be asked, and we send only straight people into the military. I would think there would be a reconsideration of the policy.

But MREA is the path that’s most relevant. You know, we might think about our individual rights and human rights and all of that. But that’s not going to fly. The only thing that’s going to fly is something that has meaning for the military itself and that has to do with military readiness.

What sort of game do you have if you take out your quarterback? When you look at the records of so many gay and lesbian service members, they are the quarterbacks, they are the leaders. They have ribbons out the kazoo to reflect the caliber of the work they’ve done. Why would you throw those people out? Since 1993 over 13,000 troops have been discharged under DADT. Fighting two wars, while discharging trained troops makes no sense. To replace these trained servicemembers the military has lowered mental, physical and personal standards of recruits. You can enter without a high school degree and they can now recruit someone who is fat, felon and over forty.

When you look at not only the cost of training individuals, but then the cost of discharge and having to replace them, it’s just a travesty.

On her Web site, this fiercely patriotic woman who sincerely loved the military and offered it her life gives gays and lesbians the following advice:

“If you would join the Boy Scouts of America, or a Fundamentalist church, then perhaps you are masochistic enough to join the military. But you are worth more than that; your skills, talents, gifts should be nurtured, acknowledged and appreciated. Find a place where you are appreciated for all of you – serve that organization for the greater good.”