“You can’t be her life partner,” the admissions person in the hospital oncology department told me when I wanted to be with my late partner Anne who would soon undergo surgery. “You’ll have to be her sister to come in here.”
I flashed back to my encounter with entrenched inequality in 2001 before most of us had even dreamed of marriage equality, when I saw the newly released movie “Freeheld.” The film, inspired by the 2007 Oscar-winning documentary of the same name, is based on the true story of a Ocean County, N.J. lesbian couple – a detective, Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) and her partner Stacie Andree, a mechanic (Ellen Page).
Laurel and Stacie meet, date, dance, fall in love, move in together and register as domestic partners. When Laurel becomes terminally ill with lung cancer, she wants Stacie to receive her pension when she dies. But even though the two are domestic partners, the County freeholders insist that giving Laurel’s pension to Stacie would “violate the sanctity of marriage.”
“Freeheld,” with Michael Shannon as Laurel’s partner Dane Wells on the police force, and Steve Carell as LGBT activist Steven Goldstein, depicts the arduous battle the couple must fight in the last months of Laurel’s life for an essential benefit that hetero married couples take for granted. In the documentary “Freeheld,” Laurel says on her death her pension would go to Stacie, “were it not the for fact that we’re not a heterosexual couple.”
“Freeheld” is a vivid and moving reminder that the quest for queer equality isn’t an impersonal, orderly campaign. Sure, to achieve justice, you need to have an incisive legal and media strategy along with the support of celebs and politicos. Yet, our struggle isn’t only waged by queer activists, renowned litigators or famous actors. Often, “ordinary” LGBT people from cops to teachers to waiters to mechanics to poets, who have no taste for activism or the limelight, must fight for their civil rights at the gut-punching, personal, messy solar plexus of life.
I remember insisting to a paramedic that I should be told what was going on with Anne after she’d had a seizure. “Are you related to her,” he asked. “Is she just your roommate?”
My friend Shannon’s late partner Letty was a Presbyterian minister. In 2005, after Connecticut legalized civil unions, Letty and Shannon along with three other couples who’d also had civil unions and friends from their church, had a ceremony at their home. Yet, because Letty died in 2007 before same-sex marriage was legalized by the Supreme Court, Shannon is still struggling to receive Letty’s pension from the Presbyterian Church. Because Letty died before SCOTUS’ marriage decision, “I had to pay federal inheritance tax,” Shannon told me.
In “Freeheld,” we see Laurel and Stacie not only speaking before the County freeholders but coping with hair loss, nausea, weakness and other graphic details of Laurel’s illness and treatment. “Stacie and I are just average people,” Laurel tells the freeholders. “We’d like to hold on to our house – to remember how much we love each other.”
“In my career I’ve never asked for special treatment, I’m only asking for equality,” adds Laurel, who’s been a policewoman for 23 years.
Watching “Freeheld,” it seemed as if centuries have passed a mere decade after Laurel and Stacie so valiantly fought for justice. Today, a same-sex married couple in their situation wouldn’t have to fight this battle. “When [the Supreme Court] finally made the decision it was like a sigh of relief,” Moore told the New York Times. “Because you realized we have changed as a culture.”
“Freeheld” brings Laurel and Stacie’s story to a wide audience. Let’s honor these heroes by remembering our history and working for justice. There’s been a sea change in the cultural landscape since “Freeheld.” But in this era of Kim Davis, we can’t afford to be complacent.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.