Obituary: Richard Adams / Pioneer for gay marriage 37 years ago

March 9, 1947 - Dec. 17, 2012


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Thirty-seven years ago, Richard Adams and his partner of four years, Anthony Sullivan, became one of the first gay couples in the country to be granted a marriage license. It happened in Boulder, Colo., where a liberal county clerk issued licenses to six same-sex couples in the spring of 1975.

Mr. Adams had hoped to use his marriage to secure permanent residency in the United States for Mr. Sullivan, an Australian who had been in the country on a limited visa and was facing deportation.

But Colorado's attorney general declared the Boulder marriages invalid. Several months later, Mr. Adams and Mr. Sullivan received a derogatory letter from the Immigration and Naturalization Service that denied Mr. Sullivan's petition for resident status.

Mr. Adams, who later filed the first federal lawsuit demanding recognition of same-sex marriages, died Dec. 17 at his home in Los Angeles after a brief illness, said his attorney, Lavi Soloway. He was 65.

Mr. Soloway described Mr. Adams and Mr. Sullivan as "pioneers who stood up and fought for something nobody at that time conceived of as a right, the right of gay couples to be married."

"Attitudes at the time were not supportive, to put it mildly," Mr. Soloway said. "They went on the Donahue show and people in the audience said some pretty nasty things. But they withstood it all because they felt it was important to speak out."

Born in Manila, Philippines, on March 9, 1947, Mr. Adams immigrated to the U.S. with his family when he was 12. He grew up in Long Prairie, Minn., studied liberal arts at the University of Minnesota and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1968.

By 1971 he was working in Los Angeles, where he met Mr. Sullivan and fell in love.

Four years later, the two men heard about Boulder County Clerk Clela Rorex. She had decided to issue marriage licenses to gay couples after the Boulder district attorney's office advised her that nothing in state law explicitly prohibited it.

On April 21, 1975, they obtained their license and exchanged marriage vows at the First Unitarian Church of Denver.

The Boulder marriages attracted national media attention, including an article in The New York Times that called Colorado "a mini-Nevada for homosexual couples." Ms. Rorex received obscene phone calls, as well as a visit from a cowboy who protested by demanding to marry his horse. (Ms. Rorex said she turned him down because the 8-year-old mare was underage.)

After their marriage, Mr. Adams and Mr. Sullivan filed a petition with the INS seeking permanent residency for Mr. Sullivan as the spouse of a U.S. citizen. In November 1975, they received the immigration agency's derogatory letter and lodged a formal protest.

They took the agency to court in 1979, challenging the constitutionality of the denial. A federal district judge in Los Angeles upheld the INS decision, and Mr. Adams and Mr. Sullivan lost subsequent appeals.

In a second lawsuit, the couple argued that Mr. Sullivan's deportation after an eight-year relationship with Mr. Adams would constitute an "extreme hardship." In 1985 a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the hardship argument and opened the way for Mr. Sullivan to be sent back to Australia.

Because Australia had already turned down Mr. Adams' request for residency in that country, the couple decided the only way they could stay together was to leave the U.S. In 1985, they flew to Britain and drifted through Europe for the next year.

"It was the most difficult period because I had to leave my family as well as give up my job of 181/2 years. It was almost like death," Mr. Adams said in "Limited Partnership," a documentary scheduled for release next year.

The pair ended their self-imposed exile after a year and came home. They lived quietly in Los Angeles to avoid drawing the attention of immigration officials, but in recent years began to appear at rallies supporting same-sex marriage, Mr. Soloway said.

They were encouraged by new guidelines issued by the Obama administration this fall instructing immigration officials to stop deporting foreigners in long-standing same-sex relationships with U.S. citizens.

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