Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Toasting an Oscar Win, Hoping for Greater Rights - New York Times

Toasting an Oscar Win, Hoping for Greater Rights - New York Times

February 25, 2008
Toasting an Oscar Win, Hoping for Greater Rights
WEST ORANGE, N.J. — It was part Oscar party and part civil rights rally.

More than 300 people filled a theater here to standing-room-only capacity on Sunday evening to watch “Freeheld,” which won the Academy Award for best documentary short subject.

The film beat out three other documentaries, “La Corona,” “Salim Baba” and “Sari’s Mother.” The nominations and winner were introduced by United States servicemen and women shortly after 11 p.m.

“I’m here to watch the film because of what it could do for us,” said Doug Laverty, 40, a police officer in Passaic County who was featured in the film.

The 38-minute documentary chronicles the experiences of an Ocean County prosecutor’s investigator, Detective Lt. Laurel Hester, who died of lung cancer in February 2006 at 49. She fought her illness while battling the Ocean County freeholders for benefits for her partner, Stacie Andree.

Ms. Andree and the filmmaker, Cynthia Wade, were attending the Oscar ceremony in Hollywood.

At dramatic moments in the documentary, including a scene in which Lieutenant Hester, who lived in Point Pleasant, appears in a wheelchair at a freeholders’ meeting to ask that her pension be transferred to Ms. Andree, sobs could be heard in the audience.

“It was a tough movie to watch,” said Sam Joseph, 49, who lives in South Orange. “I’ve been with my partner for 30 years and it’s always been an issue: What if one of us get sick?”

None of the five Ocean County freeholders, who ultimately voted to extend benefits to same-sex couples, were at the screening.

Some in the audience on Sunday were same-sex couples who said they were still fighting for benefits for their partners.

Craig Ross, 46, watched the movie with his partner, Richard Cash, 54, for whom he is trying to obtain insurance through his employer, a technology company based in the Midwest.

“I have asked about it, but they don’t recognize civil unions, only marriage,” Mr. Ross said.

Mr. Cash added, “Like Laurel said, we don’t want to be treated differently than anybody.”

In 2006, Gov. Jon S. Corzine signed legislation extending benefits to same-sex couples under a civil union law.

According to Steven Goldstein, president of Garden State Equality, more than 2,400 couples in New Jersey have entered into same-sex unions, and about one-fourth of them have filed complaints with Garden State Equality over benefits. The group is an advocacy organization for gay, lesbian and transgender people in New Jersey.

“I wish this film had a happy ending,” Mr. Goldstein shouted to the crowd after the credits rolled. “It does not. Our civil union law is failing; it is not respected like marriage.”

Between the showing of the film and the beginning of the Oscar broadcast, Ed Mather, 66, of Morris County, said he was still working for the right to marry his partner of 39 years, the Rev. Robert O. Kriesat, with whom he attended the screening.

“The goal is full marriage rights,” he said.

Mr. Kriesat, 68, who appeared briefly in the film petitioning the freeholders, said it was the second time he had seen the movie, and it again made him think of what could happen if he or his partner fell ill.

“It’s almost as hard to watch the second time,” he said.

Though about half the audience left after the screening, the rest watched the broadcast, anxiously waiting for the category in which “Freeheld” was entered.

In stark contrast to the somber film, the Oscar party afterward was a raucous event, in which wine and Champagne flowed, and breathless quips about moviegoers’ clothes were made by a Joan Rivers impersonator.

A cheer went up when “Freeheld” was announced as the winner. Joan Hervey, 53, who appeared in the film, said she felt “a rush of joy,” and David Smith, 23, managing director of Garden State Equality, said, “I feel empowered.”

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