Aspen Times Weekly: Love story
In April 1975, Clela Rorex, a young and recently elected Boulder Country clerk and recorder, began issuing marriage licenses to gay couples.
She would marry six couples before a state attorney general’s order stopped her. One of those couples, Richard Adams and Tony Sullivan, are the subject of the new documentary, “Limited Partnership,” which screens Sunday at Aspen Filmfest.
Rorex, 31 and just a few months into her first term, had become active in the feminist movement in the early ’70s. Her activism on behalf of women informed her historic decision, but she hadn’t previously been involved with the burgeoning fight for gay rights.
“At the time I didn’t know any gay couples,” Rorex says in the film. “I was faced with a profound moral issue of, would I discriminate against a couple of the same sex?”
She consulted Boulder’s district attorney, who found nothing in Colorado’s state law barring same sex couples from marrying. A media circus soon descended on Rorex and the couples. One local man came to her, in response, asking for a license to marry his horse (Rorex denied it, because the 8-year-old mare, Dolly, was underage) and Johnny Carson used it as monologue fodder on “The Tonight Show.
“I was naïve about the degree of animosity that emerged,” says Rorex.
History repeated itself earlier this year, as current Boulder County clerk Hillary Hall began issuing same-sex marriage licenses despite a state ban, with her efforts legally halted by the attorney general and state Supreme Court. When Rorex issued her marriage licenses in 1974, there was no national debate about marriage equality and no precedent, there were just two men seeking to make their bond official.
“She didn’t want to be a hero — she just did it out of her own moral compass,” Thomas Miller, director of “Limited Partnership,” said in an interview. “I don’t think she knew what it was going to entail, but that was her character. Then she really got it from all sides.”
While Colorado’s brief period of marriage equality ended with the attorney general’s ban, Adams and Sullivan’s marriage on April 21, 1975 in Boulder began a four-decade crusade by the couple for equal rights.
Sullivan and Adams got their marriage license in the morning, exchanged vows at a Unitarian church, consummated their union in private – which Sullivan jokingly calls “the shot heard round the world” in the film – then the newlyweds held a press conference. They would stand in front of reporters and microphones often in the years to come, fighting for federal recognition of their marriage and for Sullivan, an Australian, to be granted U.S. citizenship as Adams’ husband.
The couple met on Cinco de Mayo 1971 in a Los Angeles gay bar called The Closet, when Sullivan, then 29, was on an around-the-world trip.
“I had no plans to stay in the U.S. and no plan to fall in love,” Sullivan says in the film.
On their first date, they went to see Greta Garbo’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and over the next four years they forged a devoted partnership. Sullivan stayed in the U.S., crossing the border to Mexico regularly to get his passport stamped and keep it current. When they got word of Rorex’s marriages in Colorado, they came to Boulder and got hitched, though the marriage – and Sullivan’s immigration status — was soon sent into legal limbo by the attorney general’s decision nullifying Rorex’s same-sex licenses.
Returning to Los Angeles, the couple applied for a green card for Sullivan. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service denied the request in a letter that concluded the couple “failed to establish that a bona fide marital relationship can exist between two faggots.”
The use of a hateful pejorative in an official government document shocked the couple, and perhaps motivated them to fight harder against discrimination.
“I had never thought of anyone in government using ‘faggot’ or ‘poof’ or queer,’” Sullivan says in the documentary. “I thought government had more dignity than that.”
They appealed the decision, and drew support from the gay community and some faith-based leaders who were appalled by the tenor of the government’s decision, but lost in fights all the way up to the U.S. Court of Appeals in a 1982 case. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear their case.
Ironically, Judge Anthony M. Kennedy — who would later be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court and cast the decisive vote overturning the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013 – wrote the 1982 Court of Appeals decision denying Sullivan the right of citizenship as Adams’ husband.
“Judge Kennedy’s decision essentially ended Tony and Richard’s legal strategy and left Tony with 60 days to leave the United States,” Lavi Soloway, the couple’s immigration attorney, says in “Limited Partnership.”
Sullivan’s family in Australia had disowned him because of his homosexuality, and the country denied a visa request for his return, making Sullivan a man without a country.
When Sullivan was deported, the couple spent time in Europe before deciding to smuggle Sullivan back into the U.S. and live illegally in Los Angeles.
He and Adams fought on in the court of public opinion through the mid-80s, with appearances on “The Phil Donohue Show,” “Today” and elsewhere, but made little headway.
“I started to get very disillusioned because I didn’t realize how much hatred there was out there,” Adams says in the film.
The passage of time is a powerful force in the film as it follows the couple from their 20s into their 60s. You watch Sullivan and Adams grow older through the decades — at press conferences and on courthouse steps in the 70s and 80s, and in interviews from the recent years – continually pledging their devotion to one another, and to their fight for equal rights. The film shows both men beset by health issues and struggling with old age in the mid-2000s. With their love story at its center, “Limited Partnership” becomes less a polemic about gay marriage and more a universal tale about devotion through good times and bad, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.
“What got us through was our relationship,” says Sullivan. “It was our need to live for each other.”
The film uses an animated timeline covering 1971 to 2014, track the historic national changes over the period of Sullivan and Adams’ relationship. It effectively demonstrates the seismic changes for marriage rights in just the last few years, and the tectonic shift from the INS “faggots” letter in 1975 to President Obama’s second inaugural in 2013, where he referenced the Stonewall riots as a civil rights touchstone and declared, “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law.”
But the story is grounded in the affecting love story at its center.
“Because they got together in the early ‘70s, just a few years before the gay and lesbian movement started, you can see the whole marriage equality movement, the whole immigration movement, and you can see how the United States changed as you watch their relationship,” said Miller. “I didn’t want to be giving a history lesson. But it became natural that you would see what shaped the country as you watch this relationship.”
Miller moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1990s to attend film school, and found many of his gay friends there were in bi-national relationships. Many, like Sullivan and Adams, struggled against federal immigration laws that did not permit gay foreigners the same rights of citizenship granted to straights who married Americans.
“I started doing some research and I found this was a problem that was affecting tens of thousands of gay bi-national couples,” Miller explained. “So I started trying to find couples to follow. In that research, I found Richard and Tony’s story.”
Miller started filming what would become “Limited Partnership” in 2001. Sullivan and Adams were living underground at the time, staying out of the public eye for fear of Sullivan being deported again. Miller persuaded them to take part in the film to provide historical context.
“Through the course of the next three years, most of those other couples broke up because it was so difficult being in that kind of relationship,” Miller said. “I felt hopeless and put the film away and started working on other projects, but I would periodically check in with Richard and Tony.”
As the Bush administration was coming to a close in 2008, Miller found some new funding for the film, and Sullivan and Adams – spurred on by the passage of California’s Proposition 8 that year, banning gay marriage – were coming out of hiding and speaking out publically about marriage equality. Sullivan refers to it as coming out of the “immigration closet” in the film.
“It rekindled their activist spirit,” said Miller. “Also, as Tony once said, ‘What more can they do to us? They’ve already been doing this for so many years.’ So they decided to speak out.”
Miller picked up the film again full-time, and ended up following Sullivan and Adams through the historic turning of the national tide on gay marriage, through the Proposition 8 fight in California, the wave of gay marriage judicial and electoral victories across the U.S. and the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision overturning the Defense of Marriage Act. The high court’s decision recognizing gay marriage also allowed for married bi-national gay couples to petition to have foreigners to become citizens, effectively ending the fights for legal status for foreigners like Sullivan.
Sullivan, now 72, is expected to attend the Aspen Filmfest screening on Sunday, but due to a late twist in “Limited Partnership” that I won’t give away here, his immigration status remains invalid.
“Limited Partnership” premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June, and has won several awards on its festival run this summer. It will screen as part of PBS’s “Independent Lens” series next year, with concurrent community outreach programs in schools and libraries across the U.S. from the public television organization.
The film places Miller in the crosshairs of the two most divisive political issues in the current American culture wars: immigration and gay marriage. But he is undaunted by the controversy and criticism it invites.
“I was never fearful of it,” he said. “One of the reasons I started it was that I knew documentaries could change lives, and personal stories can change lives. … It’s a very emotional story and people are touched by it. That makes me really happy. Hopefully it’s part of this final conversation in stopping our country from discriminating against gays and lesbians.”
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April has been decreed, for the first time, as “Sonoma County Wine Month” by the vintners and it is a righteous idea, one that should have legs long into the future.