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The Drama and Pain behind ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

Cindy L. Abel’s film celebrates the bravery of a closeted lesbian couple.

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Barbara Brass and Col. Pat Thompson

When Cindy L. Abel was a kid, she had no idea what she wanted to be when she grew up. “I was interested in so many things. I thought about being a translator at the UN and a doctor with Doctors Without Borders. I wasn’t even sure by the time I went to college.”

However, after attending Southeastern College in Westgate-Belvedere Homes, Florida, Abel, 59, decided she wanted to teach and coach basketball. So she double-majored in theology and secondary education, with a minor in physical education. But despite her childhood dreams and college studies, film and communications became her field of expertise.

“In addition to filmmaking, I direct, produce, write, and coach clients in public speaking, and occasionally consult in communications and change management,” she says. “In pre-COVID times, I also enjoyed public speaking.”

Abel says she has always loved the medium of moving images. Film’s collaborative nature—having to work with other creatives to assemble a work of art—is one of the best parts about filmmaking for Abel.

After a breakup, she decided to explore directing and filmmaking by founding her own film company called Atlantis Moon. “We tell stories that launch conversations and impact popular culture,” she explains.

Abel, who identifies as a “bisexual lesbian,” recently released a film titled Surviving the Silence, which tells the story of Col. Patsy Thompson and Barbara Brass, two women whose love affair altered the course of military history. The movie shines a light on Thompson’s role in Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer’s high-profile expulsion from the Army National Guard, and Cammermeyer’s 1994 reinstatement following a high-profile federal court case.

“We cover the role that both women played in [abolishing] Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell—one upfront, and the other behind the scenes. It’s especially timely given the upcoming 10th anniversary of the policy’s repeal,” Abel says.

Cammermeyer’s memoir was adapted as a 1995 Barbra Streisand television movie starring Glenn Close, but Thompson’s story remained hidden—until now.

Abel became interested in Thompson and Brass’ story at a director’s reception following a screening of her film Breaking Through, which featured Houston’s own Annise Parker. “I met Col. Patsy Thompson and Barbara Brass on the eve of their ‘coming out’ speech at Sierra College. I was both impressed and intrigued at how two people—especially [those who pretended] at times to not be together—could stay in love and together for 30 years.”

During their conversation, Brass asked Abel if she had heard of Cammermeyer. Abel quickly answered, “Of course, she is one of my heroes!” Brass then explained that Thompson presided over the board that kicked Cammermeyer out of the military.

Looking through her 21st-century lens, Abel says it was her judgmental shock that launched her into an investigative journey. She wanted to know more about Thompson—where she grew up, the beliefs that were ingrained in her, the basis for her career and relationship choices, and how she took on the biggest challenge of her life.

The more she learned about Thompson, Brass, and Cammermeyer’s individual backgrounds, the more she understood how they developed their strength and drew on that “when their worlds collided, and history asked them to make an impossible choice.”

After their speech at Sierra College, Abel went up to the stage and told Brass and Thompson that she wanted to tell their story. “They said ‘Oh, okay.’ [Then I clarified]: ‘No, really. I want to do a film about you.’ Then it dawned on them: ‘Oh. . . Oh!’ A few months later, they signed an agreement to let me tell their story.”

Viewer response has been overwhelmingly positive, Abel says. “And people who haven’t seen it yet are asking when they can! There is a demand for this story. Overall, it seems to have really touched people who sacrificed greatly to serve in the military [while remaining] closeted, as well as civilians who didn’t realize the depth of the sacrifices being made.”

While looking into her distribution options, Abel plans to continue screening the film at festivals throughout the U.S. and abroad, including India, Australia, and Afghanistan. “We’ll also be offering the film in the future to high schools, libraries, universities, nonprofit organizations, as well as businesses—like we did with Breaking Through.

Abel says she hopes the film sets the historical record straight (so to speak) and helps others truly understand what it was like to be LGBTQ during that period, both in and out of the military, when service members and civilians often had to hide their same-sex relationships to hold on to careers and even to remain physically safe.

“I also hope it inspires people to see that we can often find a way to do something good in a horrible situation, and [get] one step closer to living authentically and free from secrets, whatever they may be,” she says.

Abel hopes the film will lead audiences to honor and respect those who have lived similar stories, and provide hope and healing for the LGBTQ services members and their families whose sacrifices have been ignored for so long.

For more information on Surviving the Silence, visit survivingthesilence.com

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Jenny Block

Jenny Block is a frequent contributor to a number of high-profile publications from Huffington Post to Playboy, and is the author of The Ultimate Guide to Solo Sex, and O Wow: Discovering Your Ultimate Orgasm. She has appeared on a variety of television and radio programs from Nightline to BBC Radio, and has spoken in bookstores and at events all across the country. Block is also a featured performer on Olivia Travel cruises and resorts.

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