Hester and Andree had led very private lives up until then, and it was a big decision to agree to Wade’s request. "We discussed it initially when Cynthia first came to us," Andree told AfterEllen.com. "We wanted to know a little more about her, of course, if we were going to let her into our lives. However, I had no idea what an impact or even how big [this story] was going to get. Laurel may have had some idea, but whatever she wanted, I allowed it."
Wade continued: "I very quickly fell into Laurel and Stacie’s lives, spending nights in their guest room. I wanted to film it with the perspective of a love story. It might be surprising, since I’m a heterosexually married mother of two."
But perhaps not so surprising. Cynthia Wade was no stranger to lesbians and lesbian issues. She attended Smith College in Northampton, Mass., and had also worked on a documentary about three biological females on the butch-FTM spectrum of gender called Gender Rebel, which aired on Logo (AfterEllen.com’s parent company) in 2006.
Plus, her family lives in Brooklyn, where, Wade said, "diversity is a given. When my oldest daughter was two, she asked me why she doesn’t have two mommies!"
Freeheld opens with footage from that first Freeholders meeting Wade attended. Hester’s fellow police officers spoke as did members of the community who were outraged at the Freeholders’ previous denials of Hester’s request.
The film does a subtly powerful job of showing the issues at play. One of the Freeholders, John Kelly, was adamantly opposed to the idea of granting pension benefits to same-sex partners, saying that it would undermine the sanctity of marriage. Another, John C. Bartlett, Jr., spoke mostly about the cost of the benefits, and about the issue of renegotiating union contracts.
Freeheld includes statements from local newspaper reporters about how disingenuous many of the Freeholders’ arguments were and how they had no support from the public. What was true is that the Freeholders in all of New Jersey’s counties did have the power to grant these benefits to same-sex partners, but due to the strong objections of two of the Ocean County Freeholders, it didn’t appear that that county would do so.
In the film, Dane Wells speaks about the "united front" that the Ocean County Freeholders wanted to maintain, and how their decisions were always "5-0 or 0-5." That kind of "united front strategy" was not mandated, he told AfterEllen.com, "It was just back-room politics."
He explained that New Jersey, which has a Democratic governor (John Corzine), has a de facto Mason-Dixon Line running through it, and Ocean County sits in the middle of that border. All of the Freeholders at the time were Republican, which had been the case as long as Wells remembered, with just three exceptions.
Things moved very quickly in the last few months of Hester’s life. On Nov. 18, 2005, the Freeholders first formally turned down Hester’s request, and Dane Wells started working on her behalf. The Dec. 7th meeting was when Wade arrived and began filming.
There was another meeting on Jan. 18, 2006, which Hester was too sick to attend. Supporters arranged for her to film a message that was played at the meeting that evening. And then, rumors started surfacing that the Freeholders were going to hold an emergency meeting on Jan. 25.
At that meeting, Freeholder Director Joseph H. Vicari told the gallery that he had received a call from Governor Corzine, and that this call helped him see how they could change their minds about Hester’s request. Wade’s camera showed the vacant seat of Freeholder John Kelly; with his absence, the Freeholders were able to present a united front and grant the pension benefits to same-sex partners with a 4-0 vote. Hester, wearing a protective mask and gloves and accompanied by Andree, was there to hear the ruling.
Laurel Hester died on Feb. 18, 2006, less than a month after this victory. She was 49.