A short documentary feature that chronicles a landmark legal battle over same-sex partner entitlement to pension benefits has been nominated for an Academy Award.
Cynthia Wade’s moving 38-minute documentary film Freeheld focuses on New Jersey Police Lieutenant Laurel Hester’s battle to transfer her pension to her domestic partner, Stacie Andree.
The film was awarded a Special Jury Prize at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival and picked up eleven additional awards at film festivals in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Seattle and Denver.
Yesterday it was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Documentary Short Subject category.
Detective Lieutenant Laurel Hester spent 25 years as a police officer in Ocean County, New Jersey.
In October 2004, doctors diagnosed her with terminal lung cancer.
Hester’s fight for her life soon became an internationally witnessed battle as she tried to pass her pension to her domestic partner, Stacie Andree.
Without Hester’s pension, Andree, a car mechanic, would not be able to afford to keep their home.
Had they been a heterosexual married couple, there would have been no issue in passing on the pension.
With less than six months to live, Hester refused to back down when her elected officials – the Ocean County Freeholders – denied her request to leave her pension to Andree.
As her battle with the Freeholders intensified and the community became embroiled in the fight, Hester raced against time to provide for the love of her life.
Alternating from packed public demonstrations to quiet, tender moments of Hester and Andree at home, Freeheld tells the public story of their fight as well as an intimate love story as the couple faces the reality of losing one another.
“I hope this film will inspire someone,” Hester explained in December 2005, six weeks before she passed away.
“I hope it gives them courage if they’re dealing with discrimination, as I have. I hope if they have a terminal disease they somehow get hope from listening to my story.”
Just nine months after Hester’s death, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples must be granted the same rights as married heterosexual couples.
On February 19, 2007, New Jersey became the third state to offer civil unions to gays and lesbians.
Upon signing the Civil Unions Bill, Governor Corzine cited Hester’s struggle as one of the reasons why this legislation was necessary.
Award-winning director Cynthia Wade is known for making unflinching films about controversial social issues, usually told through the eyes of a strong female character.
During Hester’s last dying days, Wade was granted unrestricted access to the couple, imbuing the film with an intimacy unavailable to the mainstream media.
Wade temporarily left her two children and husband in New York City to live, part-time, with Lieutenant Hester and her partner Stacie Andree in New Jersey.
“Now my older daughter is in second grade, and she will tell you that all couples, gay or straight, should be granted the same rights,” Wade says. “This became a family project – with one family showing support for another.”
Wade graduated from Smith College, the largest all-women’s college in the nation.
She holds a masters degree in documentary film production from Stanford University.
She runs a film production company in New York City, teaches film production and directs documentary and commercial films.