Colonel Grethe Cammermeyer
Photographed by Stephen Churchill Downes exclusively for A&U

winning the battle

Seven Years After Her Fight Over Gays in the Military,
Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer
Turns Her Attention to the War against AIDS

Don't ask, don't tell?  Hogwash!  Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer did tell.  In 1992, she was discharged from the military for disclosing that she was a lesbian during a routine security clearance examination.  Cammermeyer had twenty-eight years in the military, including serving in Vietnam at the age of twenty-four, receiving the Bronze Star—rare at that time for a woman—for her work as a nurse.  As a soldier, she was trained to fight.  And so she did.  She took a stand for human rights and challenged the military's antigay policy.  She went to court and won.

Cammermeyer was born in Norway where her parents fought against the Nazis for the Norwegian underground during WWII.  Their liberation by American troops marked the beginning of Cammermeyer's strong connection with America.  Her family emigrated to the United States when she was eight and she became a citizen at eighteen.

Now retired the Colonel reflects on her past at her Langley Washington home The military was her life and healing was her art.  In 1981, while Cammermeyer worked closely with neurologically impaired patients, a young man came to the hospital complaining about neurological symptoms which baffled the doctors.  "People kept saying this was all in his mind, because they found out he was gay.  I spent some time with him and I didn't think it was all in his mind.  I thought it was something real that we just didn't understand," Cammermeyer says in her monotone cadence.  Several years later, she realized he was their first AIDS patient.  She later spent five years focusing on patients with brain tumors.  "It paralleled AIDS because once you had the diagnosis it was like a death sentence...but, what was once a death sentence is now in some ways a life sentence [for people with AIDS].  And perhaps one day, in the not too distant future, it will only be an inconvenience."

Cammermeyer says that the military world's views on HIV/AIDS are similar to those of the civilian world.  Initially, it was thought of as strictly a gay disease.  "Now there is a broader understanding of HIV—that is a terrible bloodborne disease that can affect anyone.  But, there is still the notion that if you have HIV there must be something illegal, immoral, or improper that you did to get it."  When Cammermeyer speaks, she is straightforward and elaborates in a clear stream of thought.  "We're all at risk.  And we still have to step back from it and not blame the victim.  It's a worldwide plague that we have to figure out how to get a handle on, and how we can effectively prevent it."  There is a slight pause, then she continues.  "There was a time when the military was discharging; soon after, there was legislation that changed that," she points out.  Today military personnel get tested regularly.  The results are confidential, but those with HIV cannot be militarily deployed.  "Which raises a number of questions: What do you do with the people that you can't send anywhere you need them?  [The military] has to be careful that they don't end up sending them to a place where they don't have hospitals, where they can't get the medicines they need.  There are a number of logistical problems.  It's a concern, but for different reasons than the public may fear—that [the soldiers] are going to bleed on everyone—that's nonsense.  You have to have advocates monitoring the laws and policies that are created because they have a profound human impact."

The Colonel Has AIDS hit Margarethe Cammermeyer close to home?  "I can't imagine anyone having no one important to them who has been affected or lost as a result of it.  That certainly has been my situation also.  And it makes you realize how fragile life is and how anyone can get it.  And anyone can die from it."  Apparently, she doesn't want to get more personal.  She continues.  "And how far have we come now in the struggle for a treatment that almost sees people coming back from the dead, or from the brink of death and wondering how long is it going to last?"  She thinks about the current treatments and how long AIDS survivors can hold out for a cure, or at least keep it in check.  "For every breath a person can take, there is the possibility of some change occurring and some cure," she says in her strong, yet soft and nurturing voice.

The retired Colonel When asked if AIDS has had an impact on the way she thinks about death, she replies, "Having spent fourteen months in Vietnam, that probably was my salient experience."  Cammermeyer served in some of the most intense battles of that war, where she was head of an intensive care unit at an evacuation hospital.  She left Vietnam when she became pregnant with her first child.  Eventually she had four sons, who range in age from twenty-two to thirty.

Did she approach the subject of sex and AIDS with them?  "I absolutely did!" she says excitedly and assuredly.  "When I found that my kids were sexually active, I knew that I couldn't do anything to stop that," she says with a brief laugh.  "That was one of the things very early on that we talked about—don't get anyone pregnant and don't get AIDS."

She feels that AIDS education is critically important in the schools.  "Everyone is at risk.  The problem comes when AIDS is equated with being gay—then the wrong message is [sent].  When AIDS is portrayed as being a bloodborne disease, then we [understand that] we're all at risk of developing it, whether from sharing needles, sex, or blood transfusions.  I think people have a right to know about AIDS.  For individuals who say it should not be mandatory, that's sort of like saying, 'Let's not teach health in school.  Let's not teach about pregnancy, venereal diseases, tuberculosis, or smallpox.'"

Cammermeyer serves on the Governor's Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS in Washington state.  When asked about the distribution of condoms in school, she responds, "About sixty percent of twelfth-graders are involved with sex, so how are we going to help them?"  She halts in mid-thought, then continues, "Does [protection] need to be distributed for free or should they pay for it?  I think its availability is probably as important as anything else, but I'm not sure that we need to actually pay for it."

Meeting visual artist Diane Divelbess in 1988 was a major turning point in the Colonel's life.  Cammermeyer was married for fifteen years and divorced for eight when she and Diane converged.  "My perception of being gay and taking on a label of being a lesbian was after I met Diane.  I was a lieutenanct and a nurse, but I didn't feel like either.  They were just labels.  You get to a point where you feel that you are the label based on what you understand about yourself and your skill level and how you have internalized the work that you do.  And that's a process.  For me, internalizing the label of 'I am a lesbian' was when Diane and I got together, and I realized that she was who I wanted to be with.  If Diane wasn't here, I'd still be a lesbian, because my sexual identity and orientation is not based on another person, but rather on myself.  Heterosexuals don't figure out [their sexuality] through a big ordeal.  It's just something that they are.  It occurs and is part of who they are before they ever have any experience.  And so, why are we not afforded the same luxury of being allowed to be who we are without being defined around a sexual experience?"

The Colonel with her partner Diane Divelbess Cammermeyer senses that AIDS has helped to create more of a "community" between gay men and lesbians even though the infection rate among lesbians is lower.  "But we haven't been as decimated as the male gay community.  I think over the past ten years, and probably as a result of AIDS to some degree, there's been a melding of the gay community [counteracting the] separation between men and women which existed before.  It was the women who were there for the men when society rejected them.  Lesbians lost a lot of good friends that they developed in their caregiving in those years.  In the effect of surviving loss, probably the lesbian community has been affected as [much as] the gay community.  So hopefully, the gap is bridged so that we really are this community of people who happen to be different from the rest of the world."

One person who has felt the need to bridge the gap is actress/producer Barbra Streisand.  As one who is no stranger to prejudice and controversy, Cammermeyer's life struck a personal chord with her.  When Streisand's production company, Barwood, approached Cammermeyer with an offer to film the story of her life the Colonel was reluctant.  Even when Streisand met with her personally, she was still not convinced.  However, Streisand was so passionate about the project that Norwegian-America's most prominent citizen evntually agreed.  The television film is based on Cammermeyer's book of the same name, Serving in Silence (Viking Press, 1994).  Glenn Close played Cammermeyer and Judy Davis played Diane.  The video has just been released through Columbia/Tristar Home Video.

"We were very, very pleased," she says with a hint of gratitude in her voice.  "Obviously, there were a few things that were changed just because it was a movie, but the essence of it was really captured through Glenn Close and the extraordinary way she portrayed the Colonel.  And I separate from that intentionally."

Retired Military Colonel Gerthe Cammermeyer Two events were fictionalized in the movie.  One was the way the Colonel came out to her sons.  In the movie she tells them as a group: In reality, she told them separately.  "I was too much of a coward.  But I also wanted to have that personal time with each of them to deal with whatever concerns that they had along the way."  Another fictinalized aspect was Cammermeyer's and Diane's confrontation.  "We're two mature adults and so we have handled those types of scenarios slightly differently.  We communicate very well with one another.  But the teleplay writer said, "We have to be able to get the audience to come back after the commercial."

Since the movie was made in 1994, Cammermeyer has won her case against the military.  She was reinstated and she served for three more years in the Army Reserves, before retiring.  Cammermeyer's two oldest sons have married, and she now has five grandchildren, with one on the way.  She and Diane have celebrated eleven years together and Diane's mother, who has Alzheimer's disease and needs constant assistance, lives with them now.  They were about to move to an island in state when Cammermeyer decided to run for Congress, so they spent last year campaigning.  Although she lost, 55% to 45%, it was quite a feat for a first-time candidate.

At the moment, Cammermeyer is indecisive about her next professional move.  But whatever she decides, may she continue to be on the front lines for us.

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