Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Laurel Hester's Wonderful Life, Part One

(Link) When a New Jersey cop was diagnosed with terminal cancer, she hoped to pass on her pension benefits to her partner. The group that handles those benefits first ignored her claim, then they denied it. Finally, they simply ran away, leaving behind a dying woman in a wheelchair.

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LNewsEditor said...

JIC Post:
By Michael Hester
The Big Gay Picture

Part One: To Make The World A Better Place

Laurel Hester has spent her whole life trying to make the world a better place. That is why the events that have followed her diagnosis with terminal lung cancer a year ago have seemed so strange to her. She assumed a lifetime spent making the world a better place for others would entitle her to a measure of fairness in her time of desperate need.

Laurel Hester was wrong.

Earlier this year, New Jersey State changed its laws to allow counties to give domestic partner benefits to same-sex couples. But Laurel's county--Ocean County--has chosen not to do so. Without those benefits, specifically her pension benefits, Laurel's partner, Stacie Andree, stands to lose their home after Laurel is gone. When the dying woman first asked the five elected "freeholders" who manage Ocean County to grant those benefits, they ignored her request for six months. Then they finally said no.

First, they said no because her same-sex relationship offended them.

Then they said no because it would cost the county too much, even though they had not a single fact to back up their claim.

The final time they didn't actually say no. Instead, during a meeting with Laurel and her supporters, they simply ran away from the wheelchair-bound woman.

Literally. Five grown men, all allegedly Christians, ran out of the meeting through a back door and left a dying woman sitting there.

Christmas is this week, and the freeholders, all Republicans, will be with their friends and family, secure in their knowledge that their loved ones are protected should they die.

Laurel, meanwhile, will spend her last Christmas--indeed, her last days--with fear over her partner's future gnawing away at her. This is her story.

Laurel's first six years were lived with an alcoholic mother. Then her mother joined Alcoholic's Anonymous and became sober. "But underneath the sobriety she was deeply unhappy," says Laurel. "Without alcohol to self-medicate, she became a chronic depressive."

Laurel didn't blame her mother. In fact, she adored her. "This was the 1950's," she says. "Women simply didn't admit to alcoholism and depression. I admired my mother as a pioneer for what she did." That included raising four kids, becoming active in A.A., and eventually becoming the treasurer for her local group.

Nonetheless, as a young adult, Laurel felt cheated by the two illnesses that had stolen her childhood. "I knew my family and upbringing weren't normal," she says. "I knew other people didn't live like we did." That included never bringing friends home and sneaking out of bed at two in the morning to make sure her mother was all right.

And those experiences affected the young Laurel deeply. That sense of the wrong her family suffered drove Laurel to try to make the world a better place. And for Laurel that meant law enforcement. "I wanted to be a cop since I was a kid," she says. "I wanted to right a wrong. To somehow make things right for other people."

At Stockton College in New Jersey, Laurel studied criminal justice and psychology, as well as taking a few courses in women's studies. She also co-founded the Gay People's Union, a campus activist group devoted to advancing gay and lesbian rights. She did so despite fears that her pro-gay activity might put her dreams of working in law enforcement at risk.

During the summers, she worked as an intern for the North Wildwood Police Department. She loved the job, but when a campus reporter inadvertently outed her during an interview, her supervisors in North Wildwood got wind of Laurel's sexuality.

She lost the internship. "A lawyer offered to take the case," says Laurel. "But I didn't want to do that. I felt suing would start my career off on the wrong foot."

After graduating, Laurel found work with the Morris County police department. Her supervisor made it clear that Laurel's employment hinged on her staying closeted. "I didn't feel ashamed of being a lesbian," she says. Indeed, she had known from an early age she was gay. "It did frighten and depress me," she says. "I had no idea there was anyone else like me, but deep down I also knew there was nothing wrong with me."

Laurel also knew she would be an effective cop and could do much good. Even though a life in the closet was a sacrifice, she was willing to make that sacrifice if it allowed her to follow her calling.

Laurel was one of only two women in the Morris police department. She says the men treated her fine, but only to a point. "There was a line that couldn't be crossed and that was socializing with the guys," she says.

And no socializing meant none of the old-boys-network that helped with promotions. "But the biggest drawback," says Laurel "was that I didn't have any mentors, and that is so important to learning about being a cop. That meant I had to work even harder."

It also meant taking cases no one else wanted.

One of her first assignments came in the shape of a cardboard box stuffed with papers that had literally been shoved around the station for six months. After taking the box, Laurel says she told herself, "I'm going to get to the bottom of this."

Laurel sorted through the mounds of paperwork, all of which pertained to one individual person and, after countless hours of poring over prescriptions, receipts, and slogging around to pharmacists and doctor's office, she uncovered a prescription drug ring that had gone undetected by everyone else.

Her work closed eight pharmacies and cost several doctors their drug licenses. Not that she bragged about it.

Dane Wells, a fellow detective at the time, marvels how Laurel cared not a whit about getting credit for her work. "Many times I saw her work furiously on a case to bring it to a conclusion, and then let the coup-de-grace be executed by someone else," Wells says. "By the time the front-page story appeared announcing the arrest and showing the preening cops, Laurel was already back tucked away in the basement of the courthouse quietly working on the next case. But you had to see it for yourself because Laurel would never tell you of her role."

Laurel herself admits to as much. "My trademark is sharing credit," she says. "I think it's what has made me successful."

For twenty-four years, Laurel Hester did make the world a better place. She risked her life busting drug-rings. She put criminals away and did tedious investigative work that other agencies then used to solve their cases. She never knew which work paid off and didn't care. It was all necessary anyway.

What is Laurel most proud of? "Every single day," she says. "I love my job so much, feel so proud of the work I did, and how I gave it my all." But she also adds, "If I have any regrets, it's that I wasn't able to do more. Which is a typical response for the child of an alcoholic."

One of Laurel's cases does give her special satisfaction.

Two drug dealers were murdered during a drug deal gone wrong. Laurel and her partner on the case knew who the killers were within forty-eight hours. "Proving it was a lot harder," she says.

It took four years, in fact. "It felt hopeless at times," says Laurel. But she persisted and eventually she prevailed. Six years after the murders took place, a jury convicted the killers. "Even if they were drug-dealers, they deserved justice after the way they had been slaughtered," says Laurel. "And their families deserved justice, too."

How ironic then that when it mattered most in her life, Laurel could not get justice for herself.