What better way to celebrate the U.S. holiday weekend than with Glenn Close as a lesbian military officer?

What better way to celebrate the U.S. holiday weekend than with Glenn Close as a lesbian military officer?

Image Credit: ‘Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story,’ Getty Images

Welcome back to our queer film retrospective, “A Gay Old Time.” 

Happy Fourth of July weekend! As the fireworks continue booming off in the distance, what better time to examine how the United States and its institutions have stood for and—much more commonly—against the rights of its gay citizens, no?

To do so, let’s open up a little time capsule from 1995, the height of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell era, when two of our all-time-great actresses starred in a film that attempted to show us how to carve a path forward.

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For years, the DADT policy within the U.S. military stated that LGBTQ+ people could only serve so long as they didn’t openly disclose their sexual orientation. It was implemented under the Clinton administration in the early ’90s and repealed by Obama in 2011. While we won’t quite get into all the intricacies and socio-political ramifications of the practice, it was, without a doubt, one of the most highly controversial topics regarding the gay rights movement, and a big step towards our assimilation in historically heterosexual spaces.

Movies that center military life tend to reflect the mostly straight male demographic of the institution. Most of them revolve around the bond that is formed between soldiers, the horrors and hardships of war, and tend to either criticize or elevate the somewhat mindless nationalism at its core. However, few movies have directly tackled the way LGBTQ+ people have been mistreated and ostracized inside the organization throughout the years, and the uphill battles we have endured as part of it.

The Set-Up

This week, we’ll take a look at the made-for-TV movie Serving In Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story. Originally airing February 6, 1995 on NBC, it follows the story of a celebrated army official who, upon being a candidate for Chief Nurse of the entire National Guard, reveals that she is a lesbian.

Breaking the newly-implemented policy, she is then asked to resign or face a discharge. Appalled that her 40 years of service seemingly meant nothing, she decides to sue the military—even if that means coming out publicly to her friends, family, children, and society at large.

Glenn Close stars as the titular Margarethe “Grethe” Cammermeyer, with Judy Davis as her lover and partner Diane, featuring supporting performances by Wendy Makkena (sister Mary Roberts from Sister Act!) as the legal representative of LAMBDA that helps Grethe build her case, and young Eric Dane and Ryan Reynolds as her children. The film is filled with committed performances (Close and Davis both won Emmys for their portrayals) that elevate a well-intentioned but rather superficial approach to the narrative.

Hitting Close To Home

Image Credit: ‘Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story,’ Getty Images

The film took place only a few years after DADT was officially implemented in the military, and in many ways serves as an introductory guide to people that were unfamiliar with the policy at the time, using the faces of well-known performers to create a sense of immediate empathy and relatability for mainstream audiences. This was a rather common tactic used employed by television movies during that time, particularly around issues that were controversial or highly politicized with mainstream society—like the star-studded AIDS drama Our Sons we covered just a few months ago.

In turn, Serving In Silence uses the immense talents of Close and the familiarity that she had with American audiences to make an argument for why the country should care about this issue. Grethe’s path into her sexuality is quite interesting, as she is first introduced to us as a divorced woman with grown sons, and an exemplary member of the military who has practically committed no wrong in her life.

Now single and without many commitments, she meets a rebellious artist named Diane, and starts to slowly fall for her. When her superior asks her if she has ever committed any “immoral” acts during her promotion interview, Grethe cannot lie (the good soldier that she is) and confesses that she considers herself a lesbian.

While this may have been the way the real-life events developed with Grethe, it also serves as a very effective device to establish her as an all-American hero—someone we can’t help but to root for (she is national treasure Glenn Close after all!). The lesbian element isn’t introduced until well after we get to know her and her family, and although it feels like it undermines her identity, it’s a movie that ultimately doesn’t aim to explain the nuances of a late-in-life sexual awakening. Instead, Serving In Silence just wants to show its audience that members of the LGBTQ+ community are no different from anyone else in their lives.

A PSA For The USA

Glenn Close and the real Margarethe Cammermeyer | Photo Credit: Getty Images

The film is partially a family drama, in which Grethe deals with coming out to her conservative father and her grown children, only to realize she had their acceptance all along (they seemed to have suspected this side of her since the divorce). It’s also technically a legal drama, with the central tension of whether or not Grethe will succeed in her lawsuit, but those segments of the movie feel more like a series of explanations and arguments on how military code works, rather than demonstrating Gerthe’s authentic plea to be considered a human under the military’s eyes.

Without a doubt, Serving In Silence would look very different if it was released today—we’re well past the point where queer stories need to be told through a filter of “straight acceptance” in order to be made. But Serving in Silence is a fascinating artifact of how LGBTQ+ issues were treated by the media only 30 years ago, and a reminder of how many stories there are still to be told about the ways American institutions have failed us. 

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