Laurel Hester died four days after Valentine's Day -- less than a month after winning the right to leave her $23,000 in pension benefits to her partner, Stacie Andree.
Hester earned her pension the hard way -- as a cop. For nearly 24 years she served as an inspector for the Ocean County, New Jersey Prosecutor's office, excelling at the kind of painstaking due diligence work that doesn't make it onto prime-time TV but does actually solve cases. When she took her first job just out of college, she was one of only two women in the Morris police department, and her supervisor made it clear that her staying employed meant staying closeted. So Hester yanked the door shut, earned a reputation for modesty and teamwork, rose to the rank of lieutenant, and quietly devoted her life to serving her community.
All that changed last summer, when Hester was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. She wanted to be sure that the pension she'd spent over half of her life earning would go to Andree: she was afraid that without it, her partner wouldn't be able to hold on to their home. But Hester was part of a retirement plan that denied her the right to just go ahead and leave her pension to Andree -- a right that any legally married, heterosexual couple enjoys from the moment they say "I do." Hester needed the county's freeholders to specifically authorize her request under the state's Domestic Partnership Act.
But the freeholders said no. First they lied and said they couldn't do it. Then freeholder John P. Kelly said that if Hester's request was granted it would "violate the sanctity of marriage." Then they said no, it would cost too much. A month later they said no again -- this time after being shown a videotape of Hester, bald from chemotherapy, breathing with the help of a machine, and too weak to leave her hospice, urging them to change their minds.
By then, all hell was pretty much beginning to break loose. Michael Jensen of the Big Gay Picture published a three-part interview with Hester, and provided steady updates, as did Pam at the House Blend and the local papers. The folks over at Garden State Equality were on the case. But it wasn't only sympathetic commentators and activists who were supporting Hester. Co-workers like detective Dane Wells had been stepping up the pressure on the freeholders for months. And supporters threatened to organize a boycott of the state.
And then a miracle happened.
That very same week that the freeholders turned their backs on the videotape of Hester, there appeared on the horizon the sight that every politician dreads, especially in an election year: brand-name news stations converging on Ocean County, eager for footage of five conservative Republican men denying a terminally ill police lieutenant in a wheelchair the right to do as she wished with the pension she'd earned keeping them and their families safe. Next thing you knew, the freeholders were knee-deep in angry phone calls and letters. Just days later, there was a conference call between them and the state's GOP leaders.
And lo and behold, the freeholders reversed their position.
Hester's story needs to be told because she's an American hero. But it also needs to be told because most Americans, gay and straight, need to understand that what happened to Hester isn't an aberration: it's the norm and it's legal. In fact, Hester only got as far as she did because she lived in a state that passed a domestic partner's law last year: otherwise, her case would never have seen the light of day.
All kinds of well-meaning souls think that whether or not LGBT people get to visit their partners in the hospital, or inherit their partner's benefits and property, is just a matter of whether you have nice folks in charge of the decision-making process. It's not. In 99% of this country, the law does not recognize any kind of relationship between two people of the same sex and affords them no legal rights.
The freeholders' initial disrespect for Hester and Andree is in fact typical of what happens to LGBT people when the self-appointed "defenders of marriage" step in to arbitrate morality. And if the religious right in this country get what they want on this issue in the long run, queer people will forever continue to die terrible deaths: without the rewards of the work we have spent our lives doing, and without the assurance that our loved ones will be provided for once we're gone.
Forget all that soft-pedalling about how the so-called "Marriage Protection Amendment" to the Constitution just means that LGBT people won't be able to enter into unions called "marriages." That's just the first sentence of section one. The very next sentence very clearly states: "Neither this Constitution, nor the constitution of any State, shall be construed to require that marriage or the legal incidents thereof [emphasis mine] be conferred upon any union other than the union of a man and a woman."
Translation: if this amendment passes both houses of Congress later this year, states won't even be allowed to consider allowing LGBT people to have any of the rights of marriage -- most of which are already denied to us now. No shared health insurance. No access to loved ones in the hospital during family visiting hours. No right to make medical decisions for them or confer with their doctors, or continue raising children that are biologically "theirs." No inheriting their pensions, or Social Security, or any of the other programs that LGBT people spend their lives paying into.
This level of hatred for LGBT people, this desire to do us so much damage, is why it is inexcusable for liberals to try to "reach across the aisle" and get touchy-feely with bigots. If Democratic leaders can get tough with Hamas, whose very thinly disguised goal is to consolidate power through anti-Semitism, then they can get tough with a religious right whose very thinly disguised technique is to consolidate power through homophobic injustice served upon hard-working LGBT Americans.
This Sunday, Brokeback Mountain is the odds-on favorite to win the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. Get ready for a fresh glut of stupid articles about, on the one hand, the film's "universal appeal" and, on the other hand, its potency as a sign that Hollywood or liberals or lesbians and gay men are winning the culture wars. But don't expect anyone to cover the real tragedy: that even today, Ennis Delmar could end up alone and poor in a trailer. Or that Stacie Andree escaped that fate only because Laurel Hester was willing to move mountains.
Nancy Goldstein's next column will appear on Raw Story on Thursday, March 9th. She can be reached at [email protected].