Roseville couple’s love conquered military, societal obstacles

Their rambling home in Roseville is set back from the street, a fortress protected by wrought iron gates and towering fences.

They built a secret passageway off of their bedroom, so they could slip in and out unnoticed by certain house guests who had no idea they were lovers.

When they were apart, Col. Patsy Thompson and her partner, Barbara Brass, communicated in code, lest the military banish the decorated Army nurse for being a lesbian.

For more than 25 years, the couple lived in silent fear as Thompson rose through the ranks of the Army National Guard and hid the fact that she was gay, which at the time was a trait considered “incompatible” with service to her country.

Now, finally, Thompson and Brass are speaking out about their love story and their extraordinary efforts to conceal their relationship from acquaintances, some relatives and, most importantly, the service.

“At first, I wasn’t sure what Pat being in the military really meant,” said Brass, 62, holding Thompson’s hand in the living room of the couple’s 1906 home, which they have remodeled with granite counter tops and an outdoor entertaining area. “The huge sacrifices. The fear. So much hiding, so stealth. It was extremely stressful.”

Somehow their relationship not only survived, but grew stronger. Thompson retired from the military in 1994 with full honors and benefits. She and Brass married in 2008, and in 2011 toasted the demise of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

But the couple, still wary of a society that had not completely embraced gay rights, remained wary until recently. It was only two years ago, at the age of 80, that Thompson fully came out to her family and friends.

“I love being able to introduce Barb as my wife,” Thompson said on a recent afternoon, dressed in uniform for a volunteer hospice visit with a fellow veteran. “I never thought it would happen. I never thought I would live long enough to see it.”

The couple’s story, tracing the history and evolution of gay people in the U.S. military and society at large, will soon be told in a documentary, “Surviving the Silence,” which could premiere next year, said its producer, Cindy Abel. Abel also produced the movie “Breaking Through: Out of the Closet, Into the Halls of Power,” which features California Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins and former Speaker John Pérez, among others.

Brass and Thompson are working on a book that they hope will dovetail with the movie’s release.

Thompson, who grew up the daughter of religious and socially conservative parents in a small town in North Carolina, “knew early on I was different from other girls. But I didn’t understand it,” she said, until she kissed another woman while she was a nursing student in the 1950s.

She told her first lie to the military when she applied to the Air Force Nurse Corps in 1956. Asked whether she was homosexual, she checked the “No” box. It was a lie that she would perpetuate throughout her 37-year military career.

“I had decided I wanted the military as a career path and felt that I should have that right,” she said. “I knew that homosexuality was considered a mental illness at that time, and I knew I wasn’t mentally ill. So I lied.”

Thompson served on active duty in the Air Force Nurse Corps for four years, and for 14 years was in the Air Force Reserve. She met Brass, a UC Berkeley psychology graduate and artist, at a house party while she was employed at McClellan Air Force Base in 1984.

Brass was 20 years younger, a native Californian and the daughter of Holocaust survivors. She also was a pacifist, was not hiding her sexual orientation and wanted to get involved in activism around gay and lesbian causes. Thompson was serious and disciplined. Brass was lighter and more spontaneous. The differences didn’t seem to matter. Brass and Thompson made a jogging date for the next day and have been together ever since.

“I was concerned about the age difference, but Barb wasn’t worried at all,” said Thompson, a former competitive basketball player who remains physically active and appears far younger than her years. “She had so many good qualities. She was intelligent, attractive, athletic. And she was a good listener.”

Two years into their relationship, after Thompson had joined the California Army National Guard, she was selected to be the chief nurse for the Guard in the Pentagon. She spent three years in the nation’s capital. Brass, an apprentice building contractor who owned a sandwich shop with her sister in Sacramento, was unable to leave. The couple exchanged gold bands before driving across the country together, then parting with a commitment to work toward maintaining their relationship.

Because all calls at the Pentagon were monitored, Thompson and Brass communicated in code, using the letter 5 as a symbol for their love for each other.

“We couldn’t say, ‘I love you,’ ” said Brass. “It didn’t feel safe. We felt we needed a code, so we chose 5.”

“I have to go, it’s 5 o’clock!” Thompson would declare in their daily telephone calls. They exchanged letters and greeting cards with reports of daily minutiae such as the weather and the grooming needs of their cat. Brass saved every missive from Thompson, many of them decorated with hearts and full of adoring words. “I am so happy you are in my life!” Thompson wrote. “I’m so full of love for you, I need you so!”

While Brass stowed her letters from Thompson in a box, Thompson tore hers from Brass into tiny pieces as soon as she finished reading them. It would have been too risky to keep them around.

“I wrote some lovely things,” Brass said wistfully last week, looking into Thompson’s eyes. “Yes, you absolutely did,” Thompson replied.

After returning to California from her Pentagon assignment, Thompson faced a moral dilemma in 1992 when she was asked to preside over a hearing of a fellow Army nurse, Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer, who had admitted to being gay. Thompson could either fulfill her duty and remain in the closet, or reveal her own secret knowing that both women would be summarily dismissed from the military, forfeiting their careers and lifetime benefits.

Thompson, her heart heavy, led the hearing in Washington state, where Cammermeyer was based. It lasted three days, and when it was finished, “I cried all the way to dinner,” she recalled.

Based on the Army’s strict criteria, Thompson and the panel had no choice but to dismiss Cammermeyer. Thompson’s only solace, she said, was that she made sure every fact about Cammermeyer’s distinguished career made it into the record. Cammermeyer, who had been awarded a Bronze Star in Vietnam, was finishing her Ph.D. and was a chief nurse in Washington state; she later sued in federal court and was reinstated.

Her story was the subject of a 1995 television movie “Serving in Silence,” produced by Barbra Streisand and featuring Glenn Close in the lead role.

Cammermeyer, who still lives in Washington state, told The Sacramento Bee she will be forever grateful that Thompson was the officer in charge of her administrative hearing which, at times, “felt like a court-martial.

“I had absolutely no idea that Colonel Thompson was a lesbian,” Cammermeyer said in a telephone interview. “But I did know her, and I felt because she knew me we would at least get a fair hearing and could go into federal court later.

“I’m not sure anyone else would have been as open to conducting such a thorough hearing in a case that was a foregone conclusion,” she said. “She saw the unfairness of the situation. It was not because she was a lesbian. It was about her integrity as an officer.”

Once Cammermeyer’s story became public, gay soldiers occasionally contacted her to tell her she had inspired them to reveal their sexual orientation to the military brass. She advised them against it.

Until the military’s policy toward gay service members changed, she said, “I told people, ‘Don’t come out.’ It didn’t matter how good you were, you were going to be discharged. Serve in silence, and let those of us on the outside try to change the policy.”

Thompson continued to stay underground. During her six months of service in Panama in 1993, she displayed a photograph of a fictitious boyfriend in her tent. She brought Brass to a pre-retirement party later that year, but the two were unable to sit together as partners.

“My role was to say nothing, do nothing and be invisible,” Brass said.

Life is very different for the couple these days.

Since Thompson’s retirement, the two have kept busy remodeling the Roseville home they have shared for most of their time together, entertaining and doing volunteer work. At first, when neighbors and other acquaintances asked about the nature of their relationship, Thompson said they were sisters.

To Thompson’s Southern family, the couple pretended to sleep in separate rooms. Brass even built a hidden door, made to look like a storage cabinet, inside the bathroom between their two downstairs bedrooms. That way, they could retire to separate rooms, if necessary, but be together after everyone else was asleep.

Recently Brass and Thompson have been giving speeches about their story and the broader history it documents. In addition to volunteering for hospice visits and working with homeless organizations, both women are active in PFLAG, a group that offers support, education and advocacy for gay and lesbian people and their families. They have parties at their home without fear of judgment, and hold hands in public. Thompson’s family has accepted Brass as her spouse.

The secret passageway off of their bedroom has gone unused.

And, with the recent demise of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, Brass and Thompson now can file joint tax returns and take advantage of more than 1,100 other federal benefits as a married couple that they were denied for most of their relationship.

They are “out and proud,” they said. No more hiding.

Now, said Thompson, “I can be the real me.

“I wonder what it would have been like, all those years in the military, if I could have just been who I am,” she mused. “If I could have just been me.”

Cynthia Hubert: 916-321-1082, @Cynthia_Hubert


For more information on “Surviving the Silence,” an upcoming documentary about Col. Patsy Thompson and Barbara Brass, go to www.SurvivingTheSilence.com