Yesterday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the nominees for the 80th Annual Academy Awards, and among them was Freeheld, a short film about New Jersey police lieutenant Laurel Hester’s successful fight to win pension survivorship benefits for her partner, Stacie Andree, after being diagnosed with cancer. The other nominees for Best Documentary Short Subject are La Corona (The Crown), Salim Baba and Sari’s Mother.
Before Lt. Hester passed away in February 2006, she discussed her hopes for Freeheld with filmmaker Cynthia Wade (pictured above), who lived with Hester and Wade off and on during the last eight weeks of Hester’s life.
In an interview with AfterEllen.com, Wade recalled: "She said to me that she wanted to participate in Q&A’s about the film, and other times we talked about the possibility of her not being able to see the final film. Laurel told me, ‘I don’t know where I’m going, but I hope wherever I go, there’s more work for me to do … and I hope wherever I am, I will know about [what happens with Freeheld].’ I told her that whatever happens, the Oscar nomination would be hers, not mine."
The story of Laurel Hester’s fight with the Board of Chosen Freeholders of Ocean County, N.J., made worldwide headlines in 2005 — not just within the LGBT community but in the mainstream press as well.
After serving her county for more than 20 years, Hester was diagnosed with lung cancer. In the state of New Jersey, each county’s legislative body — the Board of Chosen Freeholders — was empowered to decide whether or not the pensions of public servants such as Hester could be granted to their same-sex partners. Ocean County had not done so by the time Hester learned she had cancer.
The fact that Laurel Hester was a lesbian was known by many in her department but not openly discussed while she was on the force. She explains in Freeheld that her first captain told her not to talk about it, and she was fine with that. "I was there to work," she says.
Then the injustice of her partner of five years not having access to her pension prompted Hester to speak out. "I spent 25 years fighting for justice for others," she explains in the film, "and now I’m at a point in my life where the only thing that matters is obtaining justice for the woman I love."
Her first police partner, Dane Wells, became a staunch though seemingly unlikely ally in Hester’s fight. They had lost touch over the years, but Wells always regarded her as the best partner he’d had during his time on the force in the ’80s. "She was a dedicated, loyal public servant," he said in an interview with AfterEllen.com. "I never encountered anyone harder-working than Laurel Hester."
Hester called him when she began thinking of retirement. "She wanted to be a teacher," Wells said, "teaching high-school-aged kids about discrimination." Wells had connections around the state for job opportunities, but when he called her back with answers to some of her questions, she had just heard about her diagnosis.
"At that point," Wells recalled, "Laurel was asking quietly about her pension benefits through her union rep." When she was turned down, Wells, who had always voted Republican and was considered conservative by those who knew him, was appalled and basically dropped everything to help her.
"I went berserk," he admitted. "To think that they were going to cast her in the gutter at the point where she needed them for the first time in her life."
Wells began contacting media representatives he found via the internet, including AfterElton.com’s editor, Michael Jensen, who was then writing about LGBT issues on The Big Gay Picture blog. "Michael Jensen was one of three absolutely indispensable players in this story, without whom the film would have had a very different ending," Wells said. He also contacted Juan Melli of BlueJersey.com and UKGayNews.org.uk.
Hester’s story found its way to the New York Times, where Cynthia Wade, a cinematographer and documentary filmmaker, read about it.
In the late fall of 2005, "I had just given birth to my second child," recalled Wade, who was living in Brooklyn with her husband and children. During her pregnancy, she had done some thinking about what her next documentary would be about. Wade specializes in films with strong female characters that address tough, polarizing social issues, such as 2003’s Shelter Dogs, but with her second daughter’s birth, she wasn’t in a hurry to begin work. "Then," she said, "I read about Laurel."
The article announced the Dec. 7, 2005, Freeholders meeting, and after doing some quick research about the case on the internet, Wade decided to take a crew of two and drive to Ocean County to attend. "I half expected to be told I couldn’t shoot [at the meeting]," she said, but she was never turned away.
After the meeting, she said to her crew, "I have to do this; this is outrageous." She introduced herself to Laurel Hester and Stacie Andree and told them that she wanted to make a film about them.