Lt. Laurel Hester, a 49-year-old police officer from New Jersey, died of cancer in February after 23 years on the job. Cancer was not her only battle. She waged a long legal fight to pass $13,000 worth of pension benefits to her surviving partner. Without it, she feared her partner could lose the home they shared.
Hester won her case at the eleventh hour. County officials with the power to let her do it finally gave in after a deathbed plea and the publicity it brought.
But Hester's need to fight so hard in the last days of her life shows how high the odds can be stacked against gay couples. All too often we have to fight for basic protections that others take for granted, and we are forced to do it in the middle of life's most difficult and tragic situations.
Hester's case also shows how shallow the arguments from opponents of gay rights really are.
Antigay activists like to argue that they oppose "special rights for homosexuals." But how is providing a same-sex partner the benefits you earned considered "special rights" if you are allowed to do the same thing for an opposite-sex partner?
Opponents of equality like to argue that they are defending the institution of marriage. But whose marriage is protected by putting obstacles in the way of people who are suffering and dying, and who just want to take care of the people they love?
And when you get down to it, how many straight people really want to see such heartless discrimination continue in the name of defending their marriages?
If our country is going to stay true to the ideal that everyone should be treated equally, there is only one way forward. The laws and restrictions that leave gay and lesbian couples out in the cold have to be swept away at every level.
Offering health insurance coverage to the partners of gay and lesbian employees is a small step forward.
Civil unions, which offer a few of the protections available to married couples, are at least a move in the right direction.
But the ultimate answer is complete legal equality for all couples, whether gay or straight, and that means the right to marry. Gay couples who take on the responsibilities of marriage also deserve the protections of marriage.
Lt. Hester protected the public for 23 years, and the public should protect the rights of people like her. These are not special rights. They are equal rights.
Christopher Ott is a writer in Madison, Wis., whose work on gay issues has appeared in newspapers throughout the country. He can be reached at email@example.com.