Dr. King’s Legacy Series: Tony Sullivan and Richard Adams

Tony Sullivan and Richard Adams were one of the first legally married gay couples in America. They met in 1971 at a bar in downtown Los Angeles. Adams was an artist living out of LA, and Sullivan was a native of Australia on a tour of the world. Sullivan never expected that he would stay in the United States before he met Adams, but he immediately felt at home with him.

In an interview in 2002, Sullivan said that he Richard held an artistic soul and was drop dead gorgeous.

“I did not have a happy life before knowing Richard, so this was the first place in the world I had been happy,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan’s multi-entry Visa allowed him residency in the United States for six months at a time, but by travelling to Mexico periodically, Sullivan was able to bend the rules and extend his stay. For the first few years of their relationship, Sullivan’s inability to apply for citizenship under marriage put his entire future with Adams into question. The answer to their problem came in March 1975 when Clela Rorex, a county clerk in Boulder, Colorado, issued the first same-sex marriage license to Dave McCord and Dave Zamora. Sullivan and Adams traveled to Boulder and, on April 21, 1975, became legally married. Although Colorado’s attorney general later voided these licenses, they are still in the public record.

The press picked up their story, and it quickly became the subject of international headlines. The media coverage of the event got people talking about same-sex marriage and gave hope to those in the community who could not yet wed. This new publicity came at a personal risk, though, nearly costing Adams his job and causing Sullivan to be disavowed by his family.

Adams immediately filed for Sullivan’s green card after they got married, but their hope for a successful application was dashed when they received response from the Immigration and Naturalization Services that the request had been denied. Included in this letter was the INS’s reasoning stated in one sentence: “You have failed to establish that a bona fide marital relationship can exist between two [homophobic slur].” The response shocked the couple. Though the INS followed up with a more ‘tasteful’ letter of denial, the damage had been done. The couple felt they had no choice but to go to court over the INS ruling.

With friends and supporters behind them, the case of Adams and Sullivan v. Howerton began in 1979 on the basis that the INS ruling was unconstitutional under the Equal Protections Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Things did not go in their favor. One of the U.S. district judges ruled against them, claiming that he did not have to recognize the marriage because marriage was intended for man and woman. After losing the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, Adams and Sullivan decided to file action with the Supreme Court, who also declined their case.

With few other options, the couple attempted a second angle of legal recourse, challenging Sullivan’s impending deportation. They took this second case to the Federal Court of Appeals, which ruled against them in September 1985, meaning the INS ruling stood, and Sullivan had 60 days to leave the country. This was a difficult period in the couple’s lives. Not wanting to be separated from Sullivan, Adams travelled to Europe with him where they bounced from country to country on the rail system for about a year.

Eventually, the couple saw their return to the United States in 1986. A close friend was able to get them back in through Mexico.