Forty-one years after his American husband first sought legal status for him, Australian immigrant Anthony Sullivan has finally gotten a green card — but that wasn’t the real victory in his long struggle, he says.
No, as he told his husband, Richard Adams, shortly before Adams’s death in 2012, “We won because we stayed together.”
Sullivan and Adams’s love story, marriage, and battle with immigration authorities are the subject of the documentary Limited Partnership, which has been playing to acclaim at film festivals since 2014 and is now available through iTunes, Netflix, and Amazon. It was shown on PBS’s Independent Lens series last year, shortly before the Supreme Court's marriage equality ruling, and many stations are rerunning it this month for LGBT Pride.
And just last month, Sullivan got his green card. Adams had filed a petition with Immigration and Naturalization Services in 1975, saying Sullivan was his lawful spouse and therefore should be recognized as a legal resident of the United States — legal status has long been granted to opposite-sex immigrant spouses of U.S. citizens.
The agency’s reply: “You have failed to establish that a bona fide marital relationship can exist between two faggots.”
They had recently established that relationship, though, because a county clerk in Boulder, Colo., had had no such reservations, and she didn’t use that kind of language. In 1975, Boulder County Clerk Cleta Rorex was issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, as she saw nothing in the law that prevented her from doing so. Sullivan and Adams heard about what she was doing, so they traveled from their home in Los Angeles — they had met at an L.A. bar in 1971 — to get a license April 21 of that year, and they were married the same day.
They were one of the first legally married same-sex couples in the U.S. Additional pioneers included the other couples who got licenses in Boulder, and the famous Minnesota pair of Jack Baker and Michael McConnell, who obtained a license in 1971 by using gender-neutral names.
But the U.S. government didn’t recognize these marriages, even long before 1996’s infamous Defense of Marriage Act. Sullivan and Adams went through a series of appeals, denials, and court battles, even one in which a federal judge said, “Marriage exists for the propagation of the species.” That argument has been around for a long time — that was in 1979.
In 1985, what seemed to be the final word came another federal judge, on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. He dismissed the couple’s appeal of a Board of Immigration Appeals ruling against them, and the dismissal meant Sullivan had to leave the U.S. voluntarily or else he would be deported. That judge was Anthony Kennedy, who 30 years later, on the Supreme Court, would make marriage equality the law of the land.
But that was then and this is now, so Sullivan and Adams left the country. They returned the following year, though, by coming in through Tijuana, Mexico, and avoiding the attention of border authorities who didn’t scrutinize white men like Sullivan. “It’s one of those times in life that one benefits from that horrible thing called racism,” Sullivan says now. He notes that he and Adams differed from the stereotypical notion of binational couples — while Sullivan, the immigrant, is white, Adams, the U.S. citizen, was of Filipino descent.
They settled back in Los Angeles, in an apartment in Hollywood. Adams worked as a support staffer in a law firm, and Sullivan managed their apartment complex. He had been able to obtain a Social Security card in 1972, so he could work legally and, just like a citizen, pay taxes. But the U.S. government still didn’t recognize their marriage, and they became involved in the marriage equality movement.
The two had been approached several times over the years about making a documentary film, but they didn’t agree to it until 2001, when they met Thomas Miller, who became the writer-director-producer of Limited Partnership, and Leo Chiang, a co-producer. Both are gay men, and Chiang is an immigrant from Taiwan. “As gay citizens we felt we had to use our creative voice to fight for immigration and marriage equality,” Miller says in his director’s statement.
The couple felt an immediate bond with the filmmakers, Sullivan recalls, “just as Richard and I met in a bar and made an immediate connection.” Over the years of filming, there was never a bad word exchanged, he says.
The film has been well-received at festivals and has won awards at several. Sullivan says he can’t sit through the whole film because Adams’s death, which came after a brief illness, still affects him so, but he has participated in Q&A sessions with audiences. “People have been thoroughly decent,” he says.
He notes that in the 1970s, if he had known it would take 40 years to achieve national marriage equality, that would have seemed an eternity. But now it feels “like a relatively short time for revolutionary change,” he says. He warns against becoming complacent; homophobia certainly still exists, as evidenced by the Orlando massacre. He remains hopeful, though.
“Richard and I were from the 1960s — we believed in the peace, love, happiness movement,” he says. And those are still his values: “I believe, as did Richard, that love is the most powerful force on the planet.” And that covers all kinds of love; for instance, he says, one should be able to sponsor a friend, not necessarily, a spouse, for legal immigration.
Finally getting his green card, Sullivan says, was something of an anticlimax. More meaningful, he says, was receiving an apology from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the successor to INS, along with condolences for Adams’s death. The 2014 letter from USCIS director Leon Rodriguez apologized for “the years of hurt caused by the deeply offensive and hateful language” of the 1975 denial.
“I was very happy that the government saw fit to recognize that,” Sullivan says, and the fact that it came during the administration of Barack Obama, a president he deeply admires, made it even sweeter.
For younger generations, the message of the couple’s story is to stand firm, he says, as they eventually won “just by standing firm and articulating the integrity of what we were doing.” And even before the apology letter and the green card, they achieved their true goal, he says: “The goal was to stay together.”
Watch an exclusive clip from Limited Partnership below, and for information on obtaining the film, visit LimitedPartnershipMovie.com.