That homosexuals should have equal rights to everybody else seems like a bit of a no brainer nowadays. Except that it isn’t to a lot of people. In Australia, same sex marriage still goes unrecognised. In too many Hollywood comedies this year has being homosexual been a punch line. We still scrutinise sexuality as if it offers some sort of character significance. And in the early noughties, a twenty-three year veteran of Ocean County prosecutor’s office in New Jersey, diagnosed with rapidly spreading lung cancer, struggled to get her pension transferred to her partner because they were both women. For all our cultural progress, it’s embarrassing that Laurel Hester’s story feels like something that could conceivably take place today. In actuality it wasn’t all that long ago.
Freeheld is Hester’s story and it might be familiar to anyone who saw the short documentary of the same name, which won an Academy Award back in 2008 and caught xthe eyes of Hollywood producers. Faced with the real possibility of death after her diagnosis, Hester (Julianne Moore) tried to have her pension transferred to her young partner, Stacie (Ellen Page), her wife in all ways except legally. The transfer was denied by the five Republican county freeholders, a government position in New Jersey pertaining to county politics. An arguement of theirs was that it threatened the sanctity of marriage although as one character points out, Jesus never said anything about homosexuality in the Bible. Hester was contacted by prominent LGBT spokesperson, Steven Goldstein, who saw her as an avenue to promote gay marriage.
Hester hid her homosexuality from her work because she doesn’t feel as though a lesbian woman would have career prosperity in the police department. That hopefully sounds ridiculous to you but she was probably right. Freeheld, which is not a particularly engrossing dramatisation of Hester’s story, at least does a fine job a conveying just how enormously incredible it is that homosexuals are made to feel different to heterosexuals and how it hinders them in aspects of their lives that heterosexuals take for granted. The real Hester got her first job in law enforcement in North Wildwood, New Jersey and after two years she was told that she wouldn’t be hired for a third because she was gay.
Hester’s story is a powerful one, and should be an embarrassing one for a lot of people, but Freeheld as a narrative film isn’t enough to do the story justice. The tonal confusion is damaging to the message that director Peter Sollett should be focusing on and ultimately the film doesn’t succeed fully in relating Hester and Stacie’s relationship or the court room drama surrounding Hester and Goldstein’s appeal to the freeholders or Hester’s struggle with cancer.
Same sex marriage has recently been legalised in the United States, which is undoubtedly a powerful step forward toward something that should be incontestably correct. It’s also a reminder that something must have gone terribly awry somewhere along the line for conditions for homosexuals to have been like they were, or in fact be like they are.