October 15, 2015 at 11:14 am EDT | by Kathi Wolfe
‘Freeheld’ reminds us that quest for equality isn’t easy
LGBT film, gay news, Washington Blade

Julianne Moore and Ellen Page in ‘Freeheld.’ (Photo by Phil Caruso; courtesy Lionsgate)

“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.

  • Good historical observations. In essence, the marriage equality SCOTUS decision has changed the legal landscape for same sex couples but even that decision was a narrow win with all conservative justices voicing strong objections. Unlike the Roe V. Wade decision that was decide with a greater margin in favor of it, marriage equality hinged on one vote that tipped the scale in our favor.

    It wasn’t achieved by popular majority vote as in Ireland and it wasn’t achieved because a majority in Congress argued it was the right thing to do and passed legislation. Unfortunately many homophobic attitudes like Kim Davies’ still prevail, some blatantly like hers and others secretly behind our backs.
    While we can legally marry, and many may support that, many are only supportive as long as our relationships are invisible to them. They really don’t want to see us hold hands in public, embrace and in particular kiss on the mouth especially when the couple is two men. That visceral disgust still permeates like a stink bomb in the air.

    So yes, I agree we must NEVER become complacent and take this right for granted. Many will continue to attempt to undermine it and exempt themselves from it. Just like they continue to oppose abortion despite a decision made by the court back in 1973!

  • Thanks for this cogent review–which also makes me so sad for you and the countless other same-sex life partners who were denied what should be inalienable rights. Thanks, Kathi. And belated condolences for your double tragedy.

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