Pension Fight Inspires Film

Freeheld, starring Julianne Moore and Ellen Page, depicts Laurel Hester's fight to pass on her pension to partner Stacie Andree after being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.

Julianne Moore, left, and Ellen Page portray New Jerseyans Laurel Hester and Stacie Andree in the film Freeheld.
Julianne Moore, left, and Ellen Page portray New Jerseyans Laurel Hester and Stacie Andree in the film Freeheld.
Photo by Phil Caruso

Laurel Hester selflessly protected the people of New Jersey for 24 years as a detective lieutenant with the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office. In 2004, while still on the force, she was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Her dying wish to pass on her pension benefits to her registered domestic partner, Stacie Andree, was repeatedly denied by the Ocean County Freeholders.

The heartrending story of Hester and Andree and their fight for equal rights is now a major motion picture, Freeheld, starring Academy Award-winner Julianne Moore as Hester and Academy Award-nominee Ellen Page as Andree. It opens in limited release on October 2 and nationwide October 16.

“When I read the plight of Laurel Hester…I was really surprised and kind of shocked,” says producer Cynthia Wade. “I realized instantly this was going to be my next passion project.” Wade produced and directed an earlier documentary about the two women, also titled Freeheld, which won an Academy Award for best documentary short in 2008.

Hester waged her fight for her pension rights while receiving chemotherapy treatments. At the time, local governments were permitted—but not required—to provide pension benefits for same-sex couples through the Domestic Partners Act of 2004. Local media coverage sparked national interest when the freeholders officially denied the pension benefits on November 9, 2005.

Hundreds of supporters showed up at the next freeholders’ meeting in support of Hester. Many were organized by gay-rights activist Steven Goldstein, founder of Garden State Equality; actor Steve Carell portrays Goldstein in Freeheld. Amid the backlash, other Jersey counties extended benefits to domestic partners. Ocean County would not budge.

As support built, Hester made a last-ditch plea to Ocean County. On January 25, 2006, the freeholders finally reversed their decision. Less than one month later, Hester passed away. She was 49.

“This film is really about the impact of two ordinary working people from suburban New Jersey, so you see the day-to-day impact when there isn’t equality,” says Wade. “Laurel wasn’t expecting to be an activist at all, but she was always doing the right thing and was always about equality and fairness. I think she’d be really proud.”

Where to See Freeheld: Bow Tie Clairidge Theater, Montclair; Teaneck Cinemas, Teaneck; Bow Tie Red Bank Theatre, Red Bank; The Showroom, Asbury Park; Carmike Ritz 16, Voorhees; Ritz at the Bourse, Philadelphia.

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