Lt. Laurel Hester and Stacie Andree; © all images by Cynthia Wade

Freeheld, The Legacy of Laurel Hester, which I saw at its East Coast premiere during the 2007 the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject.

If there was ever a teachable moment in recent LGBT history, a time when average people and events affecting their lives put them in a position to speak for all of us and make a difference in our struggle for equality — it was the story of Laurel Hester and Stacie Andree.

Detective Lieutenant Laurel Hester spent 25 years putting her life on the line for the residents of Ocean County, New Jersey. Little did she know that, when she developed terminal lung cancer, that she would have to battle her county government for the right to transfer her earned pension to her woman she loved dearly.

In the last six months of her life she had to deal with her elected officials – the Ocean County Freeholders – repeatedly denied her request to leave her pension to Stacie, citing all sorts of reasons that didn’t hold water — other NJ counties have the authority to extend partner benefits to same sex couples. Ocean County refused to do so, even as Laurel’s cancer spread to her brain.  One Freeholder, John Kelly, even said that if Hester’s request was granted it would “violate the sanctity of marriage.”

It was a story covered extensively by the Blend, Michael Jensen of the (late but not forgotten) Big Gay Picture,  Andy at UK Gay News and at BlueJersey.

Director Cynthia Wade must be thrilled with the nomination; she lived with Laurel and Stacie for the last ten weeks of Hester’s life, creating an intimate, emotional piece. Freeheld has already snared the Special Jury Prize for documentary short at the Sundance Film Festival.

More after the jump.  The length of the film was purposeful (40 minutes); it’s the perfect for an hour-long television broadcast.  I was able to go up and introduce myself to Cynthia to thank her and chat for a bit; she was keenly aware of all of the blogosphere coverage during and after filming.  Cynthia told me that she hopes to have full distribution of Freeheld during 2008, when there are marriage amendments in play and can hopefully have a greater impact. This is a film that can pave the way, and open minds that are on the fence about equality.

The Oscars are on Sunday, February 24th. In fact, Garden State Equality plans to hold hold a free statewide on that night. Steve Goldstein, director of GSE: said about this news:

We cannot understate the importance of Oscar® nomination of Freeheld within the context of what is happening in New Jersey today.  Because same-sex couples in New Jersey still don’t have the freedom to marry, many continue to endure the same denial of benefits that Lt. Hester and Stacie faced.  The state’s failing civil union law has not solved the problem.

In fact, at least 1 in every 5 same-sex couples in New Jersey have faced employers who refuse to recognize grant civil union benefits because civil unions are not called marriage.  That’s why Garden State Equality is fighting for, and will win, marriage equality.

After seeing the film and writing about it I heard from Laurel Hester’s former partner, Dale Wells. He reads the Blend, and knew I was going to see Freeheld and asked me to let him know what I thought of it. I passed along my thoughts — and let him know how thankful I was to see him there onscreen, a heartfelt ally and co-worker, who could speak out on a personal level about the importance of doing the right thing. He sent this wonderful reply.


  Thanks so much for your reply and your kind words.  When I set out the other day to contact you, I wasn’t sure whether my email would you reach you or not since I can only begin to imagine the volume of email you undoubtedly deal with.  Assured now that you’ll see this, I first and foremost want you to know that I was fully aware of what you were doing to help us in our battle with the freeholders last year.  Along with people like Michael Jensen, Juan at BlueJersey, and Andy at UK Gay News, your role was unquestionably indispensable in our victory.

And I want you to know that Laurel was also well aware of what you were doing at the time.  During the battle, Laurel and I would have what you might call “debriefings” on a daily basis, during which, among other things, I would read to her various items I was printing out every day from the Web sites covering her story, including yours.  As probably the one and only person who pretty much knows every single detail of how the story unfolded both on the record and behind the political scenes, please take my word for it that we would not have achieved the victory that we did absent the blogging work put forth by you and a few others.

I was happy to hear that you were impressed with FREEHELD.  Having experienced every minute of the story firsthand, it’s just about impossible for me step back and judge the film independently on its merits so I’ve been very interested in learning from others how it affects them.  My hope is that the film will change the way a lot of people out there are thinking, and it was of course that prospect that made the project so important to Laurel in her final days.

  I know Laurel would be incredibly pleased with the film and the attention it’s already received.  Cynthia Wade’s selfless devotion to the project defies description; she’s poured her heart and soul into it in a way that Laurel, Stacie and I never could have imagined at the outset.  I’m hopeful that Cynthia will eventually receive the recognition she’s due for the monumental efforts she’s expended in making Laurel’s dream come true.

Please accept my heartfelt appreciation, Pam, for everything you did for us here last year, and I hope you’ll find some satisfaction in knowing that Laurel, too, very much appreciated your help.
All the best,


And it looks like Cynthia’s devotion to Freeheld has brought the recognition the documentary deserves from the Academy with this nomination. Good luck to the entire crew of Freeheld.

Hat tip, Blue Jersey.

Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding