A decades-old same-sex marriage complicates a green-card case

Gay partners Richard Adams, left, and Anthony Sullivan during a press conference in 1984. They were facing the deportation of Sullivan, to Australia. (Los Angeles Times)

Anthony Sullivan and Richard Adams were spending a quiet evening watching television in their Tujunga home when Johnny Carson joked about some liberal county clerk in Colorado who had done the unthinkable: issued a marriage license to two men.

It was 1975. Adams and Sullivan had been together for four years and knew they would stay together. They hopped a flight to Boulder, witnesses in tow, were granted Colorado Marriage License No. 1860 and got married.

"When we came home from the wedding, Richard bent down to put the key in the door of our place, and I just remember looking at him and having never felt such love as I did at that moment," Sullivan recalled. "I thought, 'This dear, sweet, wonderful man has gone out on this tremendous limb for me.' I just remember feeling completely full."

But that newlywed joy, as they expected, was quickly tempered by a world that wasn't ready for them.

Shortly after they married, Adams filed a petition with the Los Angeles office of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (as it was then called) seeking permanent residency for Sullivan, an Australian citizen. For heterosexual married couples, the request was routine.

The agency, on official letterhead, responded with one sentence: "You have failed to establish that a bona fide marital relationship can exist between two faggots."

A year ago, the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, making legally married gay couples eligible for green cards. But Sullivan is still fighting an old battle because his marriage — one of the first legal same-sex marriages in the country — pre-dated the abolishment of DOMA.

Sullivan is 72 now, with a soft voice and shy smile. His beloved Adams died in December 2012, just months before the Supreme Court's rulings on gay marriage.

This spring, Sullivan asked Los Angeles immigration authorities to reopen Adams' petition so he can be granted residency as the surviving spouse of a U.S. citizen.

He's decided to continue to push for his green card for a simple reason:

"The story's not complete."

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They met by accident.

Sullivan was in the U.S. on a visitor visa in May 1971 when he stopped at a Sunset Boulevard bar called The Closet. He mistook Adams for someone else and rushed up to him, thinking he was a friend from London. Sullivan quickly realized his mistake but was too polite to admit it and walk away.

"We got to talking," he said, "and I discovered in that conversation someone who was a very rare person indeed."

They fell in love fast.

"It was a day and age in which anything was possible," Sullivan recalled. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks had shaken the country's consciousness during the civil rights movement; Cesar Chavez had led the grape boycotts in California. Young people were protesting the war in Vietnam.

"We really felt at that point in time that people could achieve the world they wanted and the life they wanted," he said. "If two men were in love, why shouldn't they be able to stay together?

Still, they didn't take marriage lightly.

"We knew that if we took a stand, we would be coming up against a government," Sullivan said. "It was no small thing."