After being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in 2004, Lieutenant Laurel Hester wanted to leave her pension benefits to Stacie Andree, her same-sex domestic partner. When the New Jersey county that Hester worked for refused to change its rules to allow this, she fought to get equal treatment for her relationship. Hester's request was approved shortly before she died at the age of 49 in 2006. Her story became the subject of an Oscar-winning 2007 documentary and 2015 feature film, both entitled Freeheld.
Early Life and Education
Laurel Hester was born in Elgin, Illinois, in 1956. Hester realized she was gay at a young age; though she accepted herself, at times her sexual orientation made her feel isolated.
Hester went on to major in criminal justice and psychology at New Jersey's Stockton State College. She also helped form the Gay People's Union at her school. Her role in this group was accidentally made public in 1977, which resulted in the loss of a police department internship.
Career and Domestic Life
Still determined to fulfill her lifelong dream of a career in law enforcement, Hester took a position with the Morris County prosecutor's office after graduation. After two years there, she became an investigator with the Ocean County prosecutor's office in 1982. Her bosses knew that Hester was a lesbian, but wanted her to keep this hidden, a condition she accepted.
"I wanted to be a cop since I was a kid. I wanted to right a wrong. To somehow make things right for other people." - Laurel Hester
Hester would spend more than two decades working for Ocean County, where she rose to the rank of lieutenant while earning the respect and admiration of her peers. The cases she handled included drug rings, organized crime and murder.
Despite her intense career, Hester still found time for fun. In 1999, she met Stacie Andree at a volleyball game in Philadelphia. Hester was 19 years older than Andree, and the two women soon fell in love. They ended up buying a house together in Point Pleasant, New Jersey, and registered their domestic partnership on October 28, 2004.
Illness and Request for Benefits
In the fall of 2004, Hester was diagnosed with lung cancer. The following May, she learned she only had months left to live. Through these developments, Hester worried for her partner, as Andree's auto mechanic salary alone would not be enough to keep their house.
New Jersey's Domestic Partnership Act of 2004 had given local governments the option of allowing their employees to select domestic partners as pension beneficiaries. (The domestic partners of state workers were automatically recognized by this law.) However the Board of Chosen Freeholders, the governing body of Ocean County, had not adopted this change. Hester therefore had to ask the freeholders to adjust the county's rules so that Andree could receive her pension.
After informal overtures went nowhere, Hester's police union submitted a formal request to the freeholders in June of 2005. But despite stating that Hester's diagnosis made quick action imperative, Hester and Andree waited until October with no response.
Fight for Equal Treatment
Hester decided to attend a freeholders meeting in October to make her case in person. Unfortunately, the five men, all Republicans, voted against her the next month.
After learning about the couple's situation, the gay rights group Garden State Equality stepped forward, and many of Hester's fellow officers offered their support as well. Noting that heterosexual spouses could easily pass on their pension benefits, protesters repeatedly urged the freeholders to treat Hester's relationship with Andree equally.
From the fall of 2005 into 2006, the media brought further attention to Hester's struggle, yet the freeholders consistently refused to act. To justify this, they cited issues that ranged from cost considerations to the need to negotiate contract changes. One freeholder also expressed personal concerns about violating "the sanctity of marriage."
As time passed, Hester's condition worsened. Too ill to attend a meeting on January 18, 2006, she recorded a video plea for the freeholders to change their minds. Sadly, she was again disappointed.
Other counties in New Jersey had altered their own benefit rules, and the Ocean County freeholders were under increasing pressure. However, it still seemed Hester would pass away before any change came in her case. Then she got word that the freeholders would hold an emergency meeting on January 25, 2006.
At this meeting, four freeholders voted to allow domestic partners to be named as pension beneficiaries in Ocean County. (The freeholder who'd worried about "the sanctity of marriage" was absent.) In defiance of medical advice, Hester was present for this vote. Afterward, she thanked the freeholders from her wheelchair.
Death and Legacy
Hester lived for just a few weeks after this triumph. On February 18, 2006, she died at home in Point Pleasant. She was 49 years old.
Hester had hoped to become a counselor for gay youth after retiring from the prosecutor's office. In honor of that unfulfilled dream, a scholarship for young leaders involved in LGBTI causes was set up in Hester's name.
"I would like to be remembered for my 24 years with the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office. I feel I made a lot of significant contributions on some very high-profile cases. I would also like to be remembered as someone who stood up for what was right and fought alongside some very courageous people to correct an injustice. And I would like to be remembered for being Stacie's domestic partner and I hope I made her happy for the years we've been together." - Laurel Hester
The last months of Hester's life and her struggle for equal treatment were recorded for the documentary Freeheld, directed by Cynthia Wade and winning an Academy Award in 2008. The documentary inspired a 2015 feature film, also called Freeheld, starring Julianne Moore as Hester and Ellen Page as Andree. The work debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and will be released in the U.S. on October 2, 2015.
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