What’s wrong with gay marriage? Absolutely nothing, as the United States finally acknowledged in 2015. Up until then, however, gay people had to fight for the same rights that heterosexual couples took for granted.
“Freeheld” is a testament to that struggle, recounting the story of New Jersey police detective Laurel Hester (played by Julianne Moore) who, discovering she had terminal cancer in 2005, fought to leave her pension to her registered domestic partner, Stacie Andree (Ellen Page).
Directed by Peter Sollett, “Freeheld” is hugely inspiring — not just because of the story, but because it happened under the presidency of George W. Bush who was dead set against legalizing gay marriage. It is a tale of hope in a difficult time, and Lord knows we can use stories about hope right now.
“Freeheld” is often heavy-handed and perhaps too earnest — Sollett doesn’t throw any curveballs here, as he and the cast steadfastly respect Hester, Andree and the people who supported them, down to the very last frame. In contrast, the bad guys — freeholders (the board of local government officials in Ocean County, New Jersey) are drawn in crude strokes, caricature-like in their stubborn homophobia. Apparently, they felt granting pension benefits to a same-sex domestic partner would undermine the institution of marriage and that if New Jersey set that precedent, the rest of the country could follow. Oh and how catastrophic would that would be!
Laurel’s long-time police partner, Dane (Michael Shannon), and gay rights activist rabbi Steven (Steve Carell) join forces with a supportive local community and after a year, love wins out. Sollett doesn’t over-dramatize or manufacture details for this drama, nor did he need to; the tale is plenty powerful as it is, and though Moore and Page seem more cautious in their performances than we’re used to seeing them, it takes nothing away from their on-screen relationship.
In mid-November, Tokyo’s Meiji University hosted a screening of “Freeheld,” followed by a talk on diversity in Japan, in honor of the International Day For Tolerance on Nov. 16. In Japan, diversity of any kind is a tricky subject at the best of times. After all, the notion of tayōsei (diversity) only recently made it into the nation’s collective consciousness, as it contradicts the Japanese myth of tanitsu minzoku kokka (a homogenously peopled nation). Here, the Japanese dream is often still the husband and wife, children and a house in the suburbs.
It seemed as though the talk in Tokyo would play it safe (as so many of such events tend to), with the evening ending with reassuring platitudes. But it proved otherwise: The panelists and audience came out of the screening dabbing their eyes and eager to discuss what steps are being taken (or not) in the political system and in society to make positive changes for Japan’s LGBT community.
Especially outspoken on this front was Aya Kamikawa, a member of Setagaya Ward’s local government since 2003 and the first transgender person in Japan to run for office and win. The 48-year-old Kamikawa said she had lived for the first 27 years of her life as a man and “it was an uphill battle to gain the same rights as heterosexuals” after that.
“I totally understand the struggles of Laurel and Stacie but I was also surprised at how Laurel met with such opposition. She was so liked and respected in her community and yet even she had to jump all those hurdles,” Kamikawa said. “With transgender people in Japan, we have (yet) to start getting people to tolerate us, let alone actually like us.”
Kamikawa experienced a lot of discrimination during her election campaign.
“I had so many insults flung at me, and most of them were about how terrible my parents must have been, to raise a monster like me,” she said, going on to explain that she has been working on changing the system from within to benefit minority groups in Setagaya.
Her work includes increasing awareness of the LGBT community through lectures as well as lobbying for LGBT, single parents, foreigners and the physically disabled.
“I think that the worst thing you can say to an LGBT is ‘It can’t be done,’ ” she said. “It can, and the movie proves that.”
For Atsushi Kawada of IBM Japan, who has worked 14 years to promote tolerance and diversity in his company, and to change the corporate climate of Japan, “Freeheld” was a particularly relevant film.
“It was especially meaningful to me because I’m 55 years old and have just come out,” he said. “My partner is 15 years my junior and I’m probably going to die before he does. At this point, there’s very little I can do to secure a financial future for him. I loved how Laurel and Stacie enlisted help from their friends and the community. That’s how it should be, because unless someone raises their voice, and then others raises theirs, nothing is going to change.”
Same-sex marriage is not legal in Japan. In Setagaya and in Shibuya, same-sex unions are acknowledged as “similar” to marriage, but many of the rights granted naturally to heterosexual couples (such as inheriting pensions and savings) are still denied.
“We have a long way to go,” said Kamikawa. “But most days, I feel like we’re making progress.
“Freeheld” (“Hands of Love: Te no Hira no Yuki”) is now showing at cinemas nationwide.