For Four Decades, This Same-Sex Couple Fought to Marry
Richard Adams and Tony Sullivan met in 1971 at a Los Angeles bar called The Closet. Sullivan, an Australian, had been traveling around the world on a tourist visa, and Adams was a Filipino American living in California. The couple fell in love and, on Apr. 21, 1975, married in Boulder County, Colorado. They became one of the first same-sex couples in the U.S. to be legally married.
Their remarkable relationship is the subject of Limited Partnership, a documentary film that debuts on PBS on Monday, June 15. The film was produced over 14 years by Tom Miller, a Sundance award–winning documentarian best known for producing Licensed to Kill and One Bad Cat: The Reverend Albert Wagner Story.
The Limited Partnership project essentially began in 2001, when Miller noticed that many of his gay friends were in relationships with people from other countries. He noticed that the couples faced significant challenges to stay together. He began thinking about how to explore the issue in a documentary film. Eventually, he came across the story of Adams and Sullivan.
In March 1975, Adams and Sullivan read newspaper articles about same-sex couples who were receiving marriage licenses from Clela Rorex, Boulder County’s clerk. Soon, they traveled to Boulder, and Rorex married them. Rorex issued a total of six marriage licenses to same-sex couples but eventually had to stop.
Rorex, who now teaches about what it means to be an ally of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, recalled the period in an interview with TakePart. She said that Colorado’s attorney general at the time ordered that no more marriage licenses be issued to same-sex couples. “He felt that continuing to issue licenses, when the intent had always been that marriage was between a man and a woman, might mislead the recipients into thinking that they had more legal rights than they did,” Rorex said.
Shortly after their wedding, Adams completed paperwork for Sullivan to get permanent legal residency as the spouse of a U.S. citizen. The request was denied, with a letter that read: “[Adams and Sullivan] have failed to establish that a bona fide marital relationship can exist between two faggots.” His green card denied, Sullivan would eventually be forced to leave the country.
After receiving the letter, the couple sued the Immigration and Naturalization Services in 1979 to prevent Sullivan’s deportation, but a federal district judge upheld the decision to not recognize their marriage. Over the following several years, they made several appeals. By 1982, the case went to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which also rejected the claims.
Eventually, in 1985, Sullivan appealed his deportation and the case went to Judge Anthony Kennedy, who ruled against the couple on Sept. 30, 1985. The decision ended Adams and Sullivan’s legal battle and left them with 60 days to leave the country.
After their 10-year fight to stay in the country, Sullivan and Adams left together and traveled around Europe but eventually decided to return to the U.S. They reentered the country via the Mexican border, and Sullivan explained that they were playing on the border control agents’ racism. “I was very aware that the color of my skin worked in my advantage,” Sullivan said. “If I had been Latino, it would have been a totally different story.”
Sullivan was officially undocumented. The couple watched as the Defense of Marriage Act—which defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman—was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in September 1996.
Years later, as states across the country began legalizing same-sex marriage, the couple made appearances at events in support of legalization shortly after Adams’ retirement, in 2010.
Adams passed away in December 2012. Sullivan wrote to President Obama requesting an apology for the letter in which the U.S. government described the couple as “two faggots.” Sullivan received an apology. Sullivan has also applied to get widow’s benefits of immigration. The two applications for permanent residency would require the recognition of legality of their 1975 wedding.
Sullivan says there are no words to describe how much he misses his husband. But in the end, he says, “We won. Our prime goal was to stay together, and they never separated us. We were together.”
In June 2013, the decision of the U.S. Supreme court case of United States v Windsor concluded that the federal government must treat the term “spouse” as gender neutral. This decision means the federal government must review all immigration visa petitions in the same manner for same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples.
This remarkable story is told, in detail, in Miller’s film.
For 12 years, Miller funded the documentary on his own and applied for various grants, but no one expressed interest or offered to help. That is, until 2013, when Independent Television Service gave Miller the necessary funds to finish the film. By 2014, Miller was showing the project at film festivals.
Sullivan praises the film, saying, “Tom, in telling our story, actually told the story of a movement over 40 years. It has everything in it, and it is so brilliantly done.” Sullivan and Adams became role models for Miller, who was in the closet for 25 years. “I never had any role models, I never had anybody to look up to as far as relationships,” he said. “People just really fall in love with Tony and Richard’s story because it is a love story. Everyone can relate to a love story.”
Evan Wolfson, president and founder of Freedom to Marry, an organization that campaigns for the right of same-sex couples to marry in the United States, said the film is an important piece of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender American history. “I believe in celebrating the pioneers,” Wolfson told TakePart, adding: “The film shows the power of the personal, the power of our love, the power of our family members, because they are important characters in this story.”
The battle for LGBT rights certainly isn’t over. In the coming weeks, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on same-sex marriages. And LGBT Americans still face an astonishing amount of barriers in employment, housing, and health care. “We haven’t won yet,” Wolfson said. “If we do win the freedom to marry later this month, as we hope we will, our movement has to harness the power of that marriage conversation to the changing hearts and minds and creating more space for legal advances in every part of the country.”
Limited Partnership premieres Monday, June 15, at 10 p.m. on PBS. Check here for local listings.