In 2005, Stacie Andree's ailing domestic partner, Laurel Hester, was denied the right to leave Andree her pension, a decision that demonstrated the inequities faced by gay couples. Andree and Hester battled to get equal treatment for their relationship, prevailing shortly before Hester's death. The Oscar-winning 2007 documentary Freeheld showed this struggle; the couple's story also inspired a 2015 movie, which shares the title Freeheld, and stars Ellen Page as Andree.
Love and Domesticity
Stacie L. Andree was born circa 1975. In 1999, she met Laurel Hester at a volleyball game in Philadelphia. The two women weren't close in age—Andree was 19 years younger—but they became friends, and then a couple.
Hester worked for New Jersey's Ocean County as an investigator for the prosecutor's office. In 2001, Andree relocated to an apartment in nearby Ocean Grove, New Jersey. Soon after this, the pair bought a house together in Point Pleasant, New Jersey.
Hester decorated their new house, while Andree focused on home improvement projects. On October 28, 2004, the couple registered their domestic partnership. (New Jersey had enacted its Domestic Partnership Act earlier that year.)
Plea for Benefits
In the fall of 2004, Andree and Hester got the devastating news that Hester had terminal lung cancer. In addition to worrying about her illness, Hester was concerned for her partner: Andree didn't earn enough as an auto mechanic to pay for their house. Once Hester passed away, Andree would likely be forced to sell their home.
As a police officer with more than two decades of service, Hester had earned a pension that she wanted to pass on to Andree. If Andree had been Hester's spouse, this would have been a straightforward process, but at the time local governments in New Jersey were not obligated to offer benefits to domestic partners, though they had the option to do so. (The domestic partners of state employees were covered.) Unfortunately, Ocean County, Hester's employer, had not expanded its benefits program.
Hester asked the Board of Chosen Freeholders, Ocean County's governing body, to adjust their rules so that she could leave Andree her pension. With no response by October of 2005, and with Hester's condition worsening, they pressed the issue, only to have the request denied in November.
Fight for Equal Treatment
Following this denial, and with the help of the gay rights group Garden State Equality and other supporters, Hester and Andree's case drew widespread attention. Though a private person, Andree found herself willing to speak up about the unfairness of their relationship being treated differently simply because she and Hester were gay.
Along with Hester, Andree attended a freeholders meeting in December to protest the earlier decision. By the next month, Hester's condition had worsened, despite Andree's attentive care. Hester recorded a video message for the January 18, 2006 meeting, and attendees urged the freeholders to act, but the five Republican men did not amend their previous decision.
Triumph and Sorrow
However, it turned out that ongoing media scrutiny and a public outcry had made a difference. Other politicians, including New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine, got in touch with the freeholders to urge them to find a solution. Facing mounting pressure to act, the freeholders scheduled an emergency meeting.
"I'm doing the same thing that any heterosexual would be doing. I'm sticking around my woman. Taking care of her till the end."
On January 25, 2006, Ocean County's freeholders finally voted to allow domestic partners to receive pension benefits. Andree and Hester were relieved by the outcome, and thanked their supporters. Sadly, the pair only had a short time to enjoy the victory—Hester passed away on February 18, 2006, with Andree by her side.
The final months of Andree and Hester's fight to be treated equally were filmed for the documentary Freeheld (2007). Though Andree had returned to her quiet life out of the public eye by the time the work was released, the film was nominated for an Academy Award, and she decided to attend the ceremony. After Freeheld won an Oscar in 2008, Andree provided a locket containing Hester's ashes to place around the statuette.
Freeheld the documentary led to Hollywood making a feature film about Andree and Hester. This movie, also called Freeheld, stars Julianne Moore as Hester and Ellen Page as Andree. It premiered at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.
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