How the Marriage Equality Movement Forgot Its Pioneers

How the Marriage Equality Movement Forgot Its Pioneers

Anthony Sullivan and Richard Adams were sitting in their Los Angeles living room watching The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson when they first heard about a feminist county clerk in Boulder, Colo., who was issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. 

It was April 1975, and Sullivan, an Australian national, had already been lying low, trying to avoid immigration authorities who wanted him deported. Although the men had been in a loving, committed relationship for several years, the Nationality Act of 1965 declared that homosexuals were "excludable at entry" into the U.S. And with the prospect of any state — let alone a nation — establishing marriage equality still seeming unreachable, the couple knew what they had to do. 

They packed their bags. They flew to Colorado, and drove to Boulder, a picturesque college town situated at the base of the Rocky Mountains. Then, with the signature of Boulder County Clerk Clela Rorex, the two men tied the knot. Legally. The couple then spent nearly 40 years together.

Sullivan and Adams, a naturalized American of Filipino descent, were one of six same-sex couples legally married in 1975, after Rorex, 33 at the time, reviewed Colorado law and determined there was no legal justification to deny marriage to same-sex couples. She confirmed her interpretation with the Boulder District Attorney prior to issuing the first license.

Soon after, however, then-Colorado Attorney General J.D. MacFarlane ordered Rorex to stop letting same-sex couples wed, and delivered his opinion that the six licenses were not valid. But MacFarlane never actually ordered those licenses invalidated. 

Unlike that of Jack Baker and Michael McConnell — the first known same-sex couple to obtain a marriage license in the U.S. in 1971, whose contract was never recorded — Adams and Sullivan's marriage license remains on the official record of Colorado to this day. Many legal experts see their license as valid. In fact, record of their marriage is the basis on which lawyers have based their current case to obtain a marriage-based green card for Sullivan following Adams’s death in 2012.

McConnell and Baker's union is no doubt higher-profile than Sullivan and Adams's. A recent front-page New York Times profile boldly proclaimed that McConnell and Baker's union was "the country's first lawful same-sex wedding." In that piece, the couple acknowledged that their marriage was achieved "with some sleight of hand involving a legal change to a gender-neutral name" as well as a legal adoption of Baker by McConnell. "We outfoxed them," Baker, a former attorney, told the Times. "That’s what lawyers do: make the law work for them." 

Sitting in a café in Portland, Ore., where the documentary detailing his relationship, Limited Partnership, was screening as part of the city's QDoc Film Festival last month, Sullivan sipped his coffee. He paused for a moment, then smiled. 

"I'm truly glad that the world is beginning to hear about Baker and McConnell," Sullivan tells The Advocate. "But the part that Richard and I played in the evolution of the [marriage equality] issue is that if you look at our marriage license, you will see that there was no subterfuge. We both signed it as 'Mr.' and everything was out in the open as to who we were gender-wise."

At the Portland screening of Limited Partnership, Sullivan and director Thomas Miller received a standing ovation. In addressing the audience, Miller said that he wanted to demonstrate that the movement for marriage equality didn’t begin with Massachusetts in 2004. 

"I really wanted to show that this has been going on for decades, and that the people who carried this issue, I should say, this 'revolution,' were unsung heroes and everyday citizens," Miller told the crowd. "Clela [Rorex], who was in the women's movement, based on her own views, did the right thing against all odds. Just like a documentary can change the world, individual people can change the world."

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Richard Adams (left) and Tony Sullivan upon receiving their marriage license in Boulder, Colo., in 1975

For a nation on the precipice of establishing marriage equality in all 50 states, looking back to the country's first same-sex unions might feel nostalgic. But as marriage equality advocates see the light break over the horizon, understanding the decades-long nature of the struggle to get here matters. And as advocates jockey to pat themselves on the back for their laudable efforts bringing marriage equality to the U.S., it's worth noting that some of the movement's early pioneers have been all but forgotten by the modern machine. 

To some degree, the lingering obscurity of the marriage licenses issued to same-sex couples in the 1970s is the result of choices made by the couples involved. After all, these couples were ordinary American citizens, simply wishing to live their lives. Simply by being gay or lesbian and seeking the same kind of recognition as their heterosexual peers, they were thrust into the spotlight of global media.

And yet there are other, less admirable reasons. At least one comes down to politics. According to Sullivan and Miller, one reason for that lingering obscurity is the fact that gay leaders and professional LGBT organizations, regardless of political affiliation, chose not to publicly support these couples with legal representation. 

Simply put, these couples often did not fit into the high-profile, well-funded, narrowly conceived, and highly controlled strategies many gay leaders at the time saw as politically necessary to achieve marriage equality. 

"Richard and I suffered badly at the hands of the professional [LGBT] community," Sullivan tells The Advocate. "When [we] got married, we received no support from [them]. Very early on, the male head of the National Gay Task Force told me, ‘We want you to lose your case.'" 

That case, seeking recognition of the couple's marriage in order to secure Sullivan's legal residency in the U.S., was being backed by the Southern California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. As the case dragged on, a representative from Lambda Legal prevailed on the national head of the ACLU to urge the Southern California chapter to drop the case, Sullivan contends. 

"In my files I have a copy of the letter," he says. 

“The only support of any kind that was ever shown to us came from the Log Cabin Republicans, who campaigned for Reagan to stop my deportation, and [by] the gay libertarians, who understood the issue," Sullivan adds. "The Metropolitan Community Church did support us."

For several years, things were difficult for Sullivan and Adams, who were forced to leave the country for a number of years. Headlines from the time referred to them as "Men Without a Country." 

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Tony Sullivan (center) marries Richard Adams in Boulder, Colo., in 1975.

Rorex, the former Boulder County clerk and activist in the 1970s feminist movement, recalls a similar experience in a phone call with The Advocate. Soon after issuing the licenses in 1975, Rorex left her position at the county clerk's office. For years, she struggled to find work, as potential employers recognized her unusual name from the national controversy that ensued from her issuance of licenses. 

"In terms of any community support at that time, my own Democratic Party was furious at me, so there was no support from [them]," says Rorex, who still lives in Boulder. "They wanted the issue to go away."

So does she regret issuing those six marriage licenses? 

"Not at all," Rorex replies resolutely. She eventually befriended both Adams and Sullivan, and has followed their ensuing legal struggles closely.

"Getting to see how important that marriage license was and the context of their whole life together [has been] extremely meaningful for me," Rorex says. "It brought things full circle for me. And I’m just very glad I had that opportunity."

Back in the 1970s, "the [Colorado] legislature didn’t want to touch" the six licenses she issued, Rorex explains. "That is why there was no action done, and those six licenses were left sitting there. … I very much want Tony to receive his green card based on that marriage license."

Sullivan's effort to obtain a green card based on his marriage to Adams has been an ongoing struggle since the couple tied the knot. In a letter dated November 24, 1975, what was then the Immigration and Naturalization Service denied the couple's application for a marriage-based green card with a single, defamatory sentence. 

"You have failed to establish that a bona fide marital relationship can exist between two faggots," read the letter, signed by the INS district director. The couple appealed the decision for 10 years, ultimately losing their battle for legal recognition and Sullivan's permanent residency in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Last year, the LGBT immigration-focused DOMA Project asked the Los Angeles office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to reopen and approve Sullivan's request for permanent residency, based on his 40-year marriage to Adams. The agency has not yet responded to Sullivan's widower's petition, which includes a request for spousal survivor benefits.  

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Tony Sullivan at Portland QDoc Film Festival's screening of Limited Partnership

Meanwhile, across the country, media and LGBT groups are preparing for the  Supreme Court ruling that could bring marriage equality to all 50 states, expected this month. And while attorneys representing states defending their marriage bans have frequently pointed to the 1975 Baker v. Nelson ruling, which found there was "no substantial federal question" at issue regarding a marriage between two men, advocates and scholars alike have paid little attention to Sullivan's ongoing case.

The Times surely isn't the only one to overlook the case. Nationwide advocacy group Freedom to Marry's impressive historical timeline of marriage equality at first included no mention of Adams and Sullivan, the six licenses issued by Rorex, or the subsequent federal lawsuit that ensued as the men sought recognition for their marriage. The timeline skipped from Singer v. Hara, a 1974 case in Washington State, to the 1993 Hawaii Supreme Court ruling in Baehr v. Miike. "It was an inadvertent omission on the timeline," explained Freedom to Marry's communications director Kevin Nix when The Advocate inquired about the missing piece of history. "[It is] easily fixed — and is being fixed. We were delighted to have [Sullivan] at our plaintiffs' gathering … where [executive director Evan Wolfson] gave him a special shout-out."

Indeed, within hours, Freedom to Marry had updated its timeline. The case is an important moment to remember, in part, because the Ninth Circuit's 1982 decision in Adams v. Howerton found it unnecessary to rule on how Colorado determined marriage. Instead, the court chose to decide Adams and Sullivan’s case based solely on how the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965 defined "immediate relatives."

"I’m not interested in getting into fights with people [or assigning blame]," Sullivan says now. "I have no wild need for ego gratification."

Sullivan says he bears no harsh feelings about the lack of support he says he and his late husband received from the formal LGBT movement.

"In a very real way, it’s a gift," Sullivan explains. "Richard and I were forced to live in the now. At any time, someone could have walked into our door and taken me away. And that is how we were forced to live for 40 years. Well, when you live something so specifically, so continually, for that long, it becomes reflex. It becomes habit; it’s what you do. It’s the greatest thing. It’s true what all the spiritual traditions say. That [being present] is the way to live — that’s the way you find peace. And that is all that matters."

That's a perspective shared by Limited Partnership director Miller, who spent more than 14 years and went $100,000 in debt working on the film. "After all, we’re all working toward the same thing," Miller tells The Advocate.

Freedom to Marry has since announced a partnership with Community Cinema that has provided free screenings of Limited Partnership in more than 75 U.S. locations before the film airs on PBS's Independent Lens series today. And Sullivan, Rorex, and Miller recently joined Freedom to Marry's Wolfson for a screening of the film in New York City. 

 

Watch Limited Partnership on PBS through the channel's Independent Lens series tonight. Check your local listings here

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