Having lived through years' worth of fierce and emotional public debates on gay marriage, the people in Massachusetts know the truth about the politics of equality: grant people rights, the world doesn't end, and opposition starts to fade away. Complacency and inertia are powerful allies.
"Freeheld," a short documentary that airs tonight on Cinemax, makes a strong argument that, in some corners of the country, the public has moved past complacency and into advocacy - and that widespread acceptance for gay couples' rights may be closer than many have guessed.
The setting here is Ocean County, N.J., which seems, from the incidental shots, less like the sort of left-leaning enclave that talk radio likes to mock, and more like a gritty, working-class place. The fight belongs to Laurel Hester, a longtime Ocean County police detective who happenes to be a lesbian. When Laurel is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, she wants to provide for her partner, an auto mechanic named Stacie Andree.
The decision rests in the hands of a local government board known as the freeholders, who have the discretion, under state law, to extend pension benefits to domestic partners. And while Laurel's cause wins vocal support from her fellow officers, the press, and much of the community, the freeholders stand firm with their "no's," citing money and making vague references to morality.
Cynthia Wade's 38-minute film, which traces Hester's story chronologically, won the 2008 Academy Award for best documentary short. Really, there's little cinematic about it; this feels like a long and moving newsmagazine piece.
Still, there are plenty of heartwrenching moments, as Laurel's physical condition deteriorates and Stacie's love stays strong. The affection between the two of them is especially clear in one scene, after Laurel's hair starts falling out: Stacie shaves Laurel's head, then tells Laurel to shave her own. With matching buzz cuts, they share a wrenchingly sweet embrace.
As touching, though, is the very public love that Laurel gets from the many community advocates who champion her cause. Eventually, even the governor intervenes, though the freeholders seem most chastened by the round of applause Laurel gets when she's wheeled into one meeting.
The freeholders themselves refused to be interviewed for this film; all we hear from them are the cryptic "no's" that were uttered in public meetings and TV news interviews. Their silence doesn't fare them very well. "You have the power!" the people at the meetings keep chanting, as they urge the freeholders to change their minds. But the people have it backwards. The power turns out to be theirs.