After the historic Nov. 5 election where the LGBT community finally turned the tide on marriage rights for same sex couples, scholar Nathaniel Frank explained the gay campaigns’ success thusly: “Its message was ‘love, commitment, family,’ with no mention of rights or benefits.” But for gay binational couples like Los Angeles-based Richard Adams and Australian-born Tony Sullivan, love and the benefits of equal rights have always been inextricably and deeply personally intertwined. Neither the Immigration and Naturalization Service nor the US Justice Department could tear them asunder – but death did. On Monday, Dec. 17, Richard Adams died after a brief illness. He was 65 and for 41 of those years, he profoundly loved and fought for the right to live with Tony Sullivan.
The couple met at the Closet Bar in LA in 1971 and were soon living together, according to information from ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives. In the US on a tourist visa, Sullivan tried all legal options to stay but by April 1975, the INS had initiated deportation proceedings. However, he was granted a continuance to file for political asylum. In a twist of fate, they discovered that the state of Colorado was issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples and dashed to Boulder to be married on April 21 by a clerk, followed by another ceremony performed by Universal Fellowship of the Metropolitan Community Church Robert A. Sirico and Freda Smith (they had already been married in LA by UFMCC founder Rev. Troy Perry).
Now civilly and religiously married, Adams filed a petition with the local Los Angeles District office of the INS to grant Sullivan permanent residence as the spouse of a U.S. citizen. The petition was denied with just one sentence: “You have failed to establish that a bona fide marital relationship can exist between two faggots.” Adams filed a lawsuit arguing that the denial violated his right to equal protection under the U.S. Constitutional. Meanwhile, the INS put Sullivan’s deportation hearing on hold and when it resumed again a month after Ronald Reagan became President, Sullivan applied for a suspension of deportation, claiming deportation would cause the couple extreme hardship. The application was denied and Sullivan appealed. The Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) denied his appeal, saying Adams was not “a qualifying relative to whom hardship may be shown under the express provisions of the statue.”
Attorney David M. Brown appealed the BIA’s ruling in Adams v. Howerton, the first federal lawsuit demanding recognition of a same sex marriage and the first to challenge INS’ discrimination against gay binational couples. They lost all subsequent marriage and immigration deportation appeals (immigration attorney and then-Lesbian and Gay Immigration Rights Task Force founder and National Coordinator Lavi Soloway in 1996 wrote in more detail about the case here) but were thrilled last August when – as Lavi Soloway reported on his DOMA Project website:
[I]n a statement to BuzzFeed, the Deputy Press Secretary for the Department of Homeland Security announced a surprising shift in the policy of the Obama administration with respect to married same-sex couples facing deportation: “[W]hen exercising prosecutorial discretion in enforcement matters, DHS looks at the totality of the circumstances presented in individual cases, including whether an individual has close family ties to the United States as demonstrated by his or her same-sex marriage or other longstanding relationship to a United States citizen.”
The couple is the subject of a documentary entitled Limited Partnership. Here’s a video about the film:
The couple enjoyed meeting other lesbian and gay couples also fighting for marriage equality, such as at this photo shoot in May 2011 with Lavi Soloway and other binational couples such as Judy and Karin who wrote about their experience in Torn Apart: United By Love, Divided By Law. They also met actor George Takei and his husband Brad.(Tony Sullivan and Richard Adams at a May 2011 photo shoot in LA while also being filmed for a documentary. Photo by Karen Ocamb)
Soloway wrote about his relationship with the couple on his Facebook page (see a separate full obit below)(Tony Sullivan, Lavi Soloway, Richard Adams in May 2011 at Los Angeles photo shoot. Photo courtesy Lavi Soloway)
and sent me this remembrance of Adams:
“Richard Adams was an extraordinary person who fought injustice where he saw it and was never afraid to speak out. He believed strongly in his own essential equality; that is, he believed that as a human being he could never be unequal. He was a patient and determined person who was ahead of his time when he waged a long and public fight with the U.S. government to achieve the respect and legal recognition for his marriage with his beloved spouse, Tony.
Together, they were an amazing team. They were devoted to each other and complemented each other’s personalities. When I first read of their historic 1975 marriage and their landmark case when I was in law school, I could never have known how central their fight would become to my personal journey as half of a binational couple and to my work as an attorney and activist. We became fast friends when I first met them in the 1990s as I first began charting my own path down the trail they had blazed.
Richard was always kind and his heart was full of appreciation for the small steps we took together in the long campaign to achieve full marriage equality. As I got to know him and Tony personally, their steadfast love for each other and the courage of their convictions became a tremendous source of inspiration to me. I was with Richard this past Saturday as we prepared yet one more round in this fight; this time our focus was on the Defense of Marriage Act. Richard made clear that after four decades, the cause of marriage equality and immigration rights was still the same. He was still fighting for the love he and Tony shared. Richard never gave up on the belief that justice would prevail, and he never waited for others to do the job. He is one of the heroes on whose shoulders we all stand as we carry on the fight for full equality.”
The family requests that, in honor of Richard Adam’s commitment to same-sex marriage, donations be made to a nearly completed feature documentary film “Limited Partnership,” chronicling the life-long fight for equal marriage rights of Richard Adams and Tony Sullivan. Tax-deductible donations can be made through the International Documentary Association (IDA): www.limitedpartnershipmovie.com.
Others also have been moved by the couple and expressed sadness at Adam’s death.
I feel so blessed to have met Richard and Tony and that I will be able to share their inspirational story through our film “Limited Partnership.” For 43 years they fought the government, who tried to force them apart. Even though they lost all their court battles, they were forced to leave the country, and they had to slip back into the country and go underground for almost 30 years, their love won out. They were together until the moment Richard died. Thank you Richard and Tony for trusting me with your story. You will never be forgotten and your life work will help create social change in this country for all Americans!
Kevin and Don Norte, two of the originators of the initial legal battle to challenge Proposition 8, remarked:
“While Americans mourn the recent tragic deaths in Newton CT, we, as lgbt marriage activists, are also saddened to hear that a marriage suffragist passed away this week. Richard Adams fought for marriage equality since 1975 with his spouse Tony Sullivan. Richard was one of the first true lgbt marriage activists in this country. It is with that American spirit of pioneering that Richard, an Australian by birth, has been and will always be an inspiration to us.
We will be celebrating Richard’s legacy by adapting the Chines custom of offering burnt offerings to the deceased. In this case, we will burn Chinese Hell Notes, on the eve of the winter solstice, which this year happens to be the start of a new Mayan calendar cycle.”
Richard Adams Official Obit
Richard Adams, Pioneering Gay Activist for Marriage Equality, Dies at 65
Richard Adams passed away suddenly and peacefully in his home on December 17, 2012 after a brief illness. His is survived by his loving partner of 41 years, Tony Sullivan.
Richard Adams came into the national spotlight in 1975 when he and Anthony Sullivan were one of 6 gay couples to be legally married in Boulder, Colorado. After the U.S. government refused to recognize their marriage, Richard and Tony waged a long legal battle, filing the first federal lawsuit seeking equal treatment for same-sex marriages in U.S. history, including immigration rights.
Richard Frank Adams was born in Manila, Philippines and came to the U.S. when he was 12 years old. He grew up in Long Prairie, Minnesota where he went to school in a one-room schoolhouse. He also attended the University of Minnesota. Richard became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1968.
In the early 1970s Richard became a human rights activist. He fought against apartheid, American intervention in Central America and nuclear war. He also joined the fight for women’s rights as well as lesbian and gay rights. In 1971 Richard moved to Los Angeles and met his life-long partner, Anthony (Tony) Sullivan. They were legally married in Boulder, Colorado in 1975.
For four decades, Richard and Tony continued to speak out in support of marriage and immigration equality. They participated in the Millennium March on Washington for Equality in 2000 and several years later joined the fight against Proposition 8 in California. Because of their significant contribution to the fight for marriage equality, Richard and Tony were prominently featured in the 2009 exhibit entitled, “Our Struggle for Marriage Equality.” This exhibit was held at the West Los Angeles Municipal Building and was sponsored by the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives, a part of the University of Southern California Libraries. In this ambitious exhibition Richard and Tony’s marriage was celebrated alongside memorabilia from other pioneering gay couples.
Richard Adams was a gentle and generous soul who was deeply loved by his family and his spouse. In his last days Richard reflected on the vows he and Tony had taken in their marriage ceremony of 1975. Richard eloquently remarked, “At the altar we would not say, ‘Till death do us part’, but rather, ‘For as long as there is love…’”
Richard passed away peacefully in his home after a brief illness. He is predeceased by his step-father, Richard Raymond Adams. He is survived by his partner and spouse of 41 years, Anthony Sullivan. He is also survived by his mother Elenita, his siblings, Stella, Kathy, Julie, Tammie, Tony (Dickie) and many adoring nieces and nephews.
In honor of Richard’s commitment to same-sex marriage the family requests that donations be made to a nearly completed feature documentary film “Limited Partnership,” chronicling the life-long fight for equal marriage rights of Richard Adams and Tony Sullivan. Tax-deductible donations can be made through the International Documentary Association (IDA): www.limitedpartnershipmovie.com.