By Mubarak Dahir
In the video, Laurel Hester is shown bald from her cancer treatments. She is wearing a simple black shirt with a silver necklace dangling around her neck, and she is seated on the couch in her home.
She looks into the camera, and as she speaks, she struggles for breath. Sometimes, she has to use a respirator at her side before she can continue.
The cancer in her lungs is eating away at her life, minute by minute. Doctors have told Hester that she is almost certain to die in the next few months.
But Hester is not on film to talk about the cancer cutting her life short. She is there to talk about what will happen, what should happen, when her life is over.
Her police pension should go to her partner of six years, 49-year-old Stacie Andree. Hester is a lieutenant and a 23-year veteran of the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office.
For about a year, Hester has battled with the Ocean County’s freeholders to pass a law that would allow her pension to go to her partner after her death. Andree has said that without Hester’s $13,000 death benefit, she will not be able to afford to keep the house the two women share in Point Pleasant, New Jersey.
Under New Jersey’s Domestic Partnership Act, passed two years ago, counties and cities have the option of extending healthcare benefits and pension benefits to the partners of gay employees, if they so wish.
But for the past year, the Ocean County freeholders didn’t so wish.
At every turn, they thwarted Hester’s pleas, as she showed up at their meetings to make her case and ask for the simple dignity of designating who gets her benefit in her death.
Some local papers quoted freeholders as saying they were opposed to making the change because the Domestic Partnership Act “circumvented the marriage law.”
Recently, some freeholders added the more socially acceptable, if no more credible, claim that they were worried about the additional cost of adding partner benefits for gay and lesbian couples.
But Hester didn’t give up.
Despite her failing health, she continued to go to meetings and make her case.
She enlisted the help of Garden State Equality, a New Jersey gay and lesbian rights group, to help make her case and get public awareness about it.
In essence, to shame the freeholders into doing the right thing.
There were protests. Blogs teemed with anger at insensitive public officials denying such a simple, heart-felt request from a dying woman. Some groups threatened a tourist boycott of the seaside county if the freeholders persisted in their stubbornness.
But nothing seemed to work.
Even Steven Goldstein of Garden State Equality admitted, “Truth be told, we did lose hope for a reversal in the past couple of weeks. We had applied all the pressure in the world, embarrassing the freeholders as few public servants had ever been embarrassed before in the state of New Jersey, and still they would not budge.”
As time passed dangerously by with no change of heart, Hester became too ill to attend freeholder’s meetings in person anymore to make her case.
The cancer had sapped her energy.
But it had not sapped her will.
As a last resort, Hester had Garden State Equality videotape her last plea.
In it, she implored the freeholders to “make a change for good, a change for righteousness.”
On January 20, a group of Republican leaders of Ocean County gathered in a closed-session teleconference that included a viewing of Hester’s video appeal. The meeting included top Republican leaders in the county, not just the freeholders. Among those present were two Republican state senators.
When they emerged from the conference room, they made an amazing announcement: “The freeholders want to give this lady’s companion the benefits that others get,” state senator Leonard Connors told the public.
The Republican leaders all refused to give details of what happened in that meeting to cause a change of heart. They had agreed beforehand to keep the proceedings private.
It’s a fair guess, however, that some more enlightened Republicans in the county got wise and put the pressure of their party on the freeholders.
No doubt Hester’s brave and unflagging appeal made a deep impression.
In a statement after the announcement was made, Hester said, “This is one of the happiest days of my life. I feel like David conquering Goliath.”
Laurel Hester’s story is a story for us all. It is one of courage and bravery and perseverance. It is a story of love, the love so strong between two people that it drives one of them to spend her final days campaigning for the well being of the other.
And it is a story of hope.
Maybe more than anything, it is a story that shows the difference one person can make when she has the conviction to stand up for what she knows is right, even in the face of tremendous odds.
It is a story that we should all remember long after Laurel Hester is gone.