Friday, December 23, 2005

Laurel Hester's Wonderful Life, Part Three

(Link) This is the final part of our three part series about Laurel Hester, the woman whose terminal cancer has embroiled her in a domestic partnership benefits controversy with the local government in Ocean County, New Jersey.

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LNewsEditor said...

JIC Post
By Michael Jensen
The Big Gay Picture

Part Three: To Kill A Mockingbird

I asked Laurel how she felt when freeholder Robert Kelly cited moral reasons, specifically the sanctity of marriage, as the reason for denying her request to leave her partner her benefits.

"Disgusted," she says. "Incredulous. As if we're back in the 1970's with that sort of mentality. I can't believe I let myself become naive enough to believe that most people don't care about [sexual orientation] anymore." She was also shocked by how judgmental they were. "How can they call themselves Christian?" she asks.

As to what she felt when the five freeholders literally walked out on her during their last meeting, Laurel says, "I thought that they were cowards. There is no other word for it. I simply could not believe that they did it." Ironically, she is happy they did. "It's harder to fight your enemies when they pose as your friends," she said.

I asked Laurel what she would say to the freeholders if given the chance. She is quiet for a while, then says, "That I really want to forgive you for what you're doing, but I'm having a really hard time doing it. That you don't realize how deeply this affects me and my partner. How disrespectful it is."

And respect is something that is hugely important to Laurel. It's one of the foundations on which her life is built.

"My life is about respect and reputation and honor and doing the right thing," she says. That is why the freeholders' treatment of her is such a shocking slap in the face. For twenty-four years, she put her life on the line to keep all of the citizens of Ocean Country safe. "And then they treat me this way."

I asked Laurel why she hadn't approached the county years ago about domestic partner benefits. After all, her partner, Stacie, is an auto mechanic whose job doesn't provide health insurance. "My work was too important," says Laurel. "I didn't want to rock the boat and jeopardize all the good I could do by trying to get something for myself."

Laurel Hester was willing to stay silent if it meant being able to do her job. Now, however, her time is running out. "If I'm a sacrificial lamb, so be it," she says. "It is worth it because there are hundreds of people affected by this. Hundreds of couples will be helped."

Two New Jersey counties--Union and Mercer--have already passed domestic partner benefits specifically because of what has transpired in Ocean County. [A third--Monmouth County--had unofficially done so as I went to post this.] The two counties' actions make Laurel happy. "If there is one good thing from my having terminal cancer and dying at a young age, it is the fact that I've made a mark on society," she says.

Nonetheless, Laurel fears for her partner's future.

Laurel first met Stacie Andree seven years ago while playing volleyball in Philadelphia. At first, their nineteen-year age difference threw Laurel off. "It never occurred to me to consider her in a romantic light. Not that it [the age difference] bothered me," she says.

They got to know each other over soda and fries after the volleyball games. "Over time," she says, "I realized Stacie was much more mature than people her age and that impressed me. She has more experiences than a lot of people twice her age."

Eventually the two fell in love. "She has the kindest heart and greatest sense of humor," Laurel says, adding that Stacie has been a huge source of strength throughout their ordeal. "If I were to put her on the phone right now," she says, "she would you tell that I always call her my rock. She's the wind beneath my wings."

But Stacie isn't Laurel's only source of strength. Dane Wells, a self-described straight, middle-aged, white guy, has fought tooth-and-nail for Laurel in her struggle with the freeholders. They worked together in Morris County back in the early 80's and picked up their friendship again earlier this year.

Dane has attended meetings, made phone calls, and sent emails all around the world in an attempt to bring attention to Laurel's case. And at some cost to himself. "It's hurt my standing in the community," he says. "But I don't care. Laurel has done so much for others. She deserves better than this."

Dane's commentaries in the media and letters to the editor have been eloquent and impassioned. Some people have been surprised that the former Marine, who graduated number one in his police academy class, has taken up this cause. Dane doesn't care what they think. As for Laurel's sexual orientation, Dane says, "It never mattered to me at all. I only saw Laurel, the person."

"I met Dane when I worked for the Morris County Police Department," Laurel says. "I can't say enough about him as a partner or what he's done for me these last few months. He's extraordinary. It makes me want to cry."

To Kill a MockingbirdAs we're chatting at the end of our talk, Laurel softly told me to ask what her favorite book was. I do so. "To Kill A Mockingbird," she says. "I even named my dog Boo."

Her choice doesn't surprise me. One can easily see her as a modern-day Atticus Finch.

Have the Ocean County freeholders ever read To Kill a Mockingbird? I wonder.

The freeholders next meet on Jan. 7th. Wouldn't it be something if, after Christmas, they were to return to their desks to find dozens of copies To Kill A Mockingbird waiting for them? If they read one, they might even learn a thing or two about doing the right thing.

Toward that end, I propose we all send the freeholders of Ocean County copies of To Kill a Mockingbird. Any used bookstore will have some (and currently has over 300 used copies available, starting at 90 cents).

Also, include a note that says, "To the Freeholders of Ocean County: This is Laurel Hester's favorite book. Please read it. You might learn something about doing the right thing."

In doing so, we'll be like the citizens of Bedford Falls, rallying around George Bailey in his time of need to show him how much they care. Let's show Laurel--and the freeholders--that we, too, care and that hers, indeed, has been a wonderful life.

Here's the address for the freeholders:

Ocean County Freeholders
P.O. Box 2191
101 Hooper Ave.
Toms River, NJ 08754-2191

Here are the freeholders phone numbers: James F. Lacey: (732) 929-2004; John P. Kelly: (732) 929-2003; John C. Bartlett, Jr: (732) 929-2116; Gerry P. Little: (732) 929-2001; Joseph H. Vicari: (732) 929-2002 or you can email them at: