Thursday, July 24, 2008

‘Freeheld’ & ‘A Lez in Wonderland’

‘Freeheld’ (Director: Cynthia Wade)
2007 / USA / 38 min
‘A Lez in Wonderland’ (Director: Anna Margarita Albelo)
2006 / France / 26 mins
Screened: Sunday July 20, 16:00 – Spiral Hall

I have two confessions to make. 1) I don’t really like or watch much television. 2) I am probably still more naïve and idealistic that I ought to be at my age (I’ll be 34 this year). As a result, I have never been a fan of either ‘Queer as Folk’ or ‘The L Word’. I’ve seen a few episodes of each, but frankly, neither one represents gay life as I live it or want to live it. ‘The L Word’ in particular strikes me as fantasy, and outside of Miyazaki and the original Star Wars films (not those abominable prequels!), I really have no interest in fantasy.

So I was rather shocked when I saw ‘A Lez in Wonderland’, a half-hour documentary about a giant lesbian party -- the Dinah Shore Weekend -- held each year in Palm Springs. The festival asked me to prepare an English transcript of the film a few months ago, and I could hardly believe what I was seeing. Here was proof that ‘The L Word’ is not a fantasy, at least not for this one weekend each year, when thousands of affluent, attractive, and (apparently) extremely promiscuous lesbians gather for a party that makes gay men’s events seem tame in comparison! (Indeed, they are behaving like a certain stereotype of gay men, and taking it to the next extreme!) It looks like a lot of fun, if you can afford the hefty price-tag.

The film does a good job of showing both the fantasy and the reality of this hugely successful event, talking to dozens of regular visitors (including one young lesbian who is there partying alongside her mother -- also a lesbian) and special guests like ‘The L Word’s Guinevere Turner, who gives one of the film’s most interesting and intelligent interviews.

“The world is full of lesbians in the closet,” she says. “I would venture to say that 50 to 60 to 70 percent of women at this event are closeted in their real lives. But I also feel like, um, these are women who are just looking to blow it away. Just, like, ‘I’m just going to fucking put on a bikini and I’m going to make out with my girlfriend at the side of a pool.’ I’m not that girl, but I am the girl of, like, ‘Wow! Lesbians are really ruling right now. They are having so much fun, and there are so many women from all over.”

Its atmosphere of hedonism and sexual abandon (even the filmmaker’s sound engineer, who is straight, gets into the fun -- making out with several women, and wandering around topless) made for a rather dramatic contrast with the sobering, sad, but ultimately triumphant story of ‘Freeheld’, winner of the Academy Award for best documentary (short subject). A simple, intimate film about the lives of regular people fighting for the rights most people take for granted, it tells the heartbreaking story of Detective Lieutenant Laurel Hester, a career police officer in New Jersey’s Ocean County, who is dying of lung cancer, and leaving a young partner, Stacie Andree, behind. The film is a mix of at-home scenes that show Hester’s deteriorating health and the way her partner cares for her unstintingly, and scenes from the meeting chamber of the local assembly that show the obfuscating excuses and delaying tactics of the Freeholders -- the democratically elected representatives of the county authority.

The film thus serves as both a poignant and affecting human drama (one festival volunteer observed that perhaps 80% of the audience was left in tears) and a valuable object lesson in the fight for queer equality. Indeed, some of the most interesting interviews are with people like Lt. Hester’s first partner, a self-described conservative and Republican supporter, who would never have taken an interest in a question of same-sex rights, if not for the fact that the issue so dramatically affects “the best partner” he ever had.

Hester appears to have the support of the entire community and in scene after scene we see public meetings full of supporters essentially heckling the Freeholders into ‘doing the right thing’ by extending spousal pension benefits to Stacie. As one of her supporters tells the council of Freeholders: “You hold within your hands the awesome power to decide whether or not Laurel Hester dies in peace.” The entire community appears to be displaying signs in their window that say: “Don’t let Laurel Hester die this way.” Which raises the question: if the whole community supports their fight, why is it even a fight? Usually democratically elected leaders resist popular pressure because they fear there is a larger (silent) majority that opposes what they are being asked to do by a vocal minority. But the film never introduces us to any members of that silent majority, save perhaps a rather naïve high school girl who comes and makes a vacuous speech in support of the Freeholders (a moment reminiscent of Britney Spears’ mindless statement of support for George W. Bush in the film ‘Fahrenheit 911’). The principle of justice that animates the film is, of course, blindingly obvious to all of us. But this otherwise excellent film might have benefited from giving us some window into the lives and attitudes of those to whom it is not so obvious, since those are the people that stand in the way of full equality for members of our community.

The screening was followed by a talk by Otsuji Kanako, as well as Mr. Yamashita, a lawyer with the Tokyo Public Law Office, where he is part of team of lawyers interested in and ready to fight for expanded equality rights for same-sex couples and members of other marginalized groups.

Otsuji-san is perhaps Japan’s best-known lesbian public figure. She was a member of the Osaka Prefectural Assembly from April 2003 to April of last year. She had hoped to be elected to the National Diet in a seat filled by proportional representation, but did not succeed -- a difficult blow to the self-confidence of Japan’s still small and relatively quiet gay liberation movement. Since then she has opened an office in Shinjuku-Nichome, from which she continues her work as an LGBT activist. She has also been busy translating into Japanese a children’s book about a couple of gay penguins! (See her website at:

The host for the discussion, Ari-san, began by asking for Otsuji-san and Yamashita-san’s thoughts on the two films.

Otsuji-san: Well, there was a very strong contrast between the two, wasn’t there? (laughter) The first film was a view into a world I didn’t know existed! So it’s valuable for us to see what goes on in other queer communities around the world. Both documentaries give us this opportunity. But now we’d like to focus on the issues raised by ‘Freeheld’, especially since we have a lawyer with us who can let us know what the legal situation is like in Japan. Most of us are just living our lives and don’t even think about what would happen if our partners got sick. But ‘Freeheld’ shows us that while we can get very comfortable in our everyday lives, as soon as something like this happens, we are reminded of what the barriers are. So it is a very pressing reality, and we need to take a close look at it.

Yamashita-san: [He started with a joke by telling us his name, height, weight, and age!] I work with a group of lawyers in the Tokyo Public Law Office. We’ve dealt with all kinds of law from personal injury cases to murder to law dealing with children and families. When you are working on social issues like the one we saw in this film [i.e. same-sex spousal and pension benefits], you have to remember that there is a legal and governmental background to these issues, but that if you raise your voice, things can change -- sometimes faster than you expect. In Japan, at present, there are no such benefits for same-sex spouses.

Ari-san: A lot of us don’t know what the current legal situation is in Japan surrounding this issue. But pensions in general have been a big political issue in the past few years. [Otherwise popular former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi ran into serious political trouble, for example, for his government’s mishandling of public pension monies.] Can you fill us in on the legalities around pensions?

Yamashita-san: My immediate reaction to the film was to wonder, ‘Is there such a pension, transferable to a spouse, in Japan?’

Otsuji-san: Yes, there is a pension you can pass on. It’s a national, public system. If a husband dies, his wife and children can collect his pension.

Yamashita-san: But you have to understand, this is the public system we are talking about. It doesn’t apply to corporate or private pensions -- only to the self-employed, or public employees. It is part of the same system as the workplace injury benefits system.
There are a few other important points to consider. If a couple is not married, the pension can still be passed on as long as there is evidence that they have been living together for a substantial amount of time, that it is a stable ‘marriage-like’ relationship.
The second point is that if a man dies, his pension can be passed on. If a woman dies, however, it cannot be passed on to her husband.

Otsuji-san: Actually, I believe the rule is that if the husband is 55 or older, and the wife dies, her pension can be passed on to him.

Yamashita-san: What about your experience as part of a same-sex couple?

Otsuji-san: Well, for all intents and purposes, I am married. As a politician, I focused on trying to create policies that would benefit gays and lesbians. So, for example, if one partner is Japanese and the other has a different nationality, this can cause problems, such as difficulties accessing the public health-care system. I know of cases of people in this situation being denied health benefits. Even if a couple is straight, there can be difficulties passing on property, shared apartments and things like that. I know of a case in which a gay man died and his family quickly came in to take his apartment, which of course his partner was still living in. So there are a lot of challenges. You can imagine, losing your partner and your home all in a short period of time is very difficult.

Ari-san: Are there any legal mechanisms to resolve these disputes with parents of partners?

Yamashita-san: Well, in Japan you can adopt adults. So that is one alternative to marriage for establishing a legal relationship between partners. But of course it requires the consent of the person’s natural parents, so that’s only practical in cases where you have a good relationship with your partner’s family.

Otsuji-san: But even in cases where you have a good relationship with the family, you can still run into issues like whether you will be allowed to be present at a cremation ceremony after your partner dies.

Ari-san: What is the power of having a movement in support of something like spousal benefits for same-sex partners?

Yamashita-san: In Japan, we don’t usually organize ourselves into big social movements. But individually we do have the power to change things. I was really impressed by the film because it shows people speaking out, talking about their own experiences – the conservative who never supported same-sex rights before, and who never would have been involved in a social movement like this, but who decides he wants to help solve this problem. That’s very powerful. In the film, Laurel talks about being told at her job interview [to become a police officer] not to talk about being a lesbian on the job, but she says that everyone nonetheless knew. So by being open about who we are, we can become stronger as a community. It still doesn’t seem like we have the right social conditions in Japan to do that. It is still scary to come out at work or to your neighbours. But we have to start doing that and building partnerships with people in that way.

Ari-san: From a legal perspective, how far off do you think we are in Japan from having our relationships recognized by the law?

Otsuji-san: Again, I think that presenting propositions for laws and debating them in the legislatures is a good way for society to move forward on these issues.

Yamashita-san: Yes, the law is very important. But even more important are the facts in the world. The law is there to help resolve conflicts that arise between those facts, such as the reality of same-sex couples and the denial of spousal benefits. You take the facts at hand and look for a rational solution to the problems they give rise to.

Otsuji-san: Of course, gay marriage is now being recognized in the U.S. and a lot of other places, but the legal system in Japan is very different. Gay marriage is not a pressing issue in Japan. As Yamashita-san said, you have to start with the facts at hand. I haven’t heard of any cases in Japan of people taking their employers to court to extend spousal benefits, but that is worth doing.

Yamashita-san: Actually, there was a legal decision made last year where a non-traditional couple [an unmarried man and woman living together who were actually blood relations - uncle and niece] fought for the right to pass on their pensions to one another. The court approved it, but the national government intervened and stopped it. Then it went to the Supreme Court, which later approved it again. So this is a non-traditional couple being granted the same right as a heterosexual married couple. In the court case, they had to break down their daily life in great detail [i.e. to show that they were living in a manner comparable to that of a couple]. So, in my opinion, the system can change – sometimes quickly – and is likely to change in the coming years.

Otsuji-san: I feel like it was really good for me to see this film and see what is happening with gays in other parts of the world. The people of that community didn’t want to let Laurel die in despair. They all had hope. We look at the world around us and we may be tempted to see the situation as hopeless and want to give up. But we really don’t know how much opportunity there is for change unless we push for it. So for me the question is how we can use our hope and build something with it.

Yamashita-san: I wish this was a world in which I could just make a law and change things, but it’s not that easy. Going to court, however, is very powerful, and a very legitimate way of making change. Maybe you are not sure what kind of lawyer to go to with these issues. So, if I can promote myself and the team of lawyers I work with a little, we are all ready to use out wits and our knowledge to push the agenda forward on these issues.

Ari-san: So if you have any problems, please call him! (laughter)

As both Yamashita-san’s example and the film ‘Freeheld’ show, same-sex couples are held to a double-standard when it comes to proving the legitimacy of our relationships. Whereas any unmarried heterosexual couple in the situation of Laurel and Stacie could simply go out and get married, and no one would question the surviving partner’s entitlement to the other’s pension, same-sex couples have to anatomize their relationships in court to prove that they are in stable, committed partnerships that are marriage-like. In fact, what they are being asked to show is not that they have a ‘normal’ relationship, but that they have achieved an ideal of mutual support and companionship that would put many heterosexual couples to shame – and Laurel and Stacie certainly succeed in doing that.


rayna said...

Hello, this is Rayna. I was the interpreter for the talk with Otsuji and Yamashita. First of all, I want to tell you what a wonderful job you've done with this blog. I love it. In particular, making conversations like this one available to the public is a great boost for our collective knowledge and understanding of LGBTQ (and HR!) issues.
I wanted to let you know that I figured out the one part I got so confused over during the interpretation. Where you wrote (i.e. I said!) "Actually, there was a legal decision made last year where a gay couple fought for the right to pass on their pensions to one another." - that was actually wrong on my part. The couple was NOT gay...but they were non-traditional. (An unmarried man and woman who were actually blood relations - uncle and niece.) Therefore the widow's court case stands as a precedent for non-legally recognized partnerships to be recognized as still deserving of pensions and other social insurances in the public eye (since the court case was won by the overwhelming testimony supporting the social validity of the couple's relationship by their neighbors and acquaintances) and legal system.
Go ahead and correct your entry to account for this...just to keep the record straight. oops, did i say that? (^_^)v

Guy Coco said...

Thanks for this correction, Rayna. That was a difficult discussion to follow, so thanks again for all your help! Hope to see you again at the festival next year.