An unlikely activist helps dying gay cop's case

More on Laurel Hester, the terminally ill N. J. woman whose partner can't receive her pension benefits.

Published January 10, 2006 8:51PM (EST)

As Broadsheet reported earlier (here and here) Laurel Hester is an investigator for the Ocean County, N.J., prosecutor's office who is dying of lung cancer. Hester would like her partner, Stacie Andree, to get her pension benefits after her death, but the all-Republican Ocean County Board of Freeholders has denied her request.

In a new article in the Big Gay Picture about Hester, Michael Jensen writes about her friend and former colleague Dane Wells -- a "straight, white, middle-aged Bush voter" -- who has become her staunchest ally. Wells, who had never really given gay rights a passing thought, is now leading the fight to force the freeholders to grant Hester and Andree domestic partnership rights.

"I'd heard of the issue [same-sex marriage] before, but, like most people, I'd never really given it any thought," Wells said. "I was more concerned about what they [politicians] were going to do with my taxes."

The story of Wells and Hester's friendship is quite moving. After working closely for seven years as detectives in the early '80s, the two lost touch for 20 years when Wells changed careers. They reconnected recently when Wells read in a local newspaper that Hester had been promoted to lieutenant and called to congratulate her. Soon after, Hester told Wells about her terminal cancer -- and that she was a lesbian.

"It just never came up," Wells said. "When we worked together, we were both very professional people interested in our work. I know it seems strange to some. That's just how we were. And when she did tell me, it didn't matter at all. It was a neutral thing, like hair color. It didn't change who Laurel was."

New Jersey does allow local governments to offer domestic partner benefits to their employees, but so far Ocean County has not chosen to do so. Wells has been helping Hester petition the freeholders to change their tune. "Laurel explained she was dying and time was of the essence. The freeholders ignored her for six months while Laurel fought to stay alive," Jensen writes. "With the support of Laurel's superiors and co-workers, she appeared at a freeholder's meeting to ask them in person. Again, they refused to change the pension rules. In one of the freeholders' very few public comments on the matter, James P. Kelly said granting Laurel's request would violate the sanctity of marriage."

Sadly, Wells is being targeted for his support of Hester. "People whisper about me," he says. "They say that I'm doing it because I'm really gay. Other people treat me ... differently. I'll be punished by those in power, though. I know that much. I might not even know it's being done, but it will."

Since Hester has been sick, Wells says he has "pretty much canceled my life from that day forward. Her partner doesn't get paid when she doesn't work. So when Laurel needs someone to be with her, I go. For the past several weeks it's pretty much been every day."

Hester's cancer has spread to her brain and her doctors have stopped her chemotherapy treatments. "She might die tomorrow, or she might rally again," says Wells. "I can't say. But it would mean so much to her to see the freeholders change their minds before she's gone."

"I've talked with a lot of straight people about this and I just don't get it. They tell me that gay marriage threatens the institution of marriage, but I just can't see how. If giving Laurel what is rightfully hers somehow threatens their marriage, then they have way more serious problems in their marriage than that. I just don't understand."

(To join "Operation Mockingbird" on Laurel Hester's behalf, scroll to the bottom of the Big Gay Picture article.)

By Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

MORE FROM Lori Leibovich

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