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freeheldJune 17, 2007

June is the traditional month calling for equal rights for all citizens, especially the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered communities. “Freeheld” tells the story of one lesbian couple, and the community that rallied behind them, to secure equal rights for domestic partners.  As the LGBTI community takes to the streets again this year, it can step a little lighter knowing that at least one battle for equality was won. 

Film by Cynthia Wade; produced by Cynthia Wade and Vanessa Roth, 2007. 38 mins.

Winner: Special Jury Prize for Short Filmmaking, 2007 Sundance Film Festival; Audience Award for Best Short Film, 2007 Independent Film Festival of Boston; Best Documentary Short, 2007 Newfest LGBT Film Festival.

June is the traditional month celebrating diversity and calling for equal rights for all citizens, especially the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered communities. Whether or not GLBTs engage politically, seeking to assert equality; whether they are even aware of the level of scornviolence and laws against them, the harsh reality is omnipresent.

This is the lesson learned by Ocean County, New Jersey police lieutenant, Laurel Hester, and it is her victorious story that is told inFreeheld. It’s not often that lesbians can speak of victory in the United States, as regressive legislation unconstitutionally designates them (and their gay brothers) second-class citizens. For this reason, Freeheld is a must-see for all social justice advocates who need to hear of victories, and who want to understand winning strategies. 

After serving 25 years on the force, Hester was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. She sought pension rights for her partner of 7 years, Stacie Andray. Thus began her battle in a state that recognizes domestic partnerships, but which allows counties to self-determine whether to apply such equal standards to public employees. The holders ofOcean County’s purse strings, a group of five straight white males, declined, citing that domestic partnerships between same sex adults “violates the sanctity of marriage.” 

Other arguments were offered by the five “freeholders” (commissioners) charged with making the determination, but the nonsensical nature of those positions was wholly discounted during public hearings. The term “freeholder” harkens back to a time when, in order to hold public office, candidates had to meet certain criteria including that they were white men who were not indentured, and who owned land. 

Hester relied on gay rights activists (Garden State Equality, in particular) and community support – including her former Police Chief, the County Prosecutor, and her conservative Republican partner, who all spoke before the freeholder panel urging pension rights for Hester’s domestic partner. Local media coverage also cast the freeholders’ discriminatory position in a negative light, which undoubtedly led to Governor Jon Corzine’s intervention in the matter. 

Because of the awards received, Freeheld is now in the running for an Oscar. In order to fully qualify, certain criteria prevent it from being released on DVD until October 2008. Local screenings are posted here

Many lessons can be drawn from this film, including the necessity of recognizing that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” As the GLBT community takes to the streets again this year, they can step a little lighter knowing that at least one battle for equality is now freely held in New Jersey.

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