'Limited Partnership' Profiles Pioneers in Same-Sex Marriage
By Laura Almo
In 2001, when Tom Miller began making a film about gays and lesbians in relationships with partners from foreign countries, he would never have predicted how much Americans' position vis à vis same-sex marriage would change by the time he completed the film in 2014.
It was a different world back then, recalls Miller. Miller left the medical profession in 1991 and moved to California to attend film school at USC; he received his masters in 1994. "I had come from Ohio," he recalls. "And I was totally in the closet and afraid to be out and gay. I came out while I was in film school, and then I started working.
"I had some gay and lesbian friends and I started noticing that a lot of them were in relationships with people from other countries," Miller recalls. "As I watched these relationships get stronger, I realized that if you were gay or lesbian, you had no way of bringing your foreign partner into this country, and you could not go to their country."
Miller thought this would be a good idea for a documentary, so he began doing the research. Initially the film was going to follow several same-sex couples, but as time went on and life circumstances changed for the main characters, Miller changed course. Rather than follow several couples, Miller decided to make the film about Richard Adams and Tony Sullivan.
Little known but quietly significant, Adams and Sullivan were among the first same-sex couples to be legally married in the United States. A young, open-minded county clerk in Boulder, Colorado, saw no reason—and found no legal statute—to deny marriage between two people of the same sex. At the time there were no laws on the books, so on April 21, 1975, Clela Rorex solemnized the marriage.
Adams, an American citizen, immediately applied for a green card for Sullivan, who was born in Australia. The basis of the application was that the two were now legally married and Sullivan should be eligible for a green card. The application was denied and the letter from the INS declared, "You have failed to establish that a bona fide marital relationship can exist between two faggots." This sparked a legal battle that lasted over ten years and ended in 1985 with Sullivan's deportation. It did not, however, end their relationship. Instead, it strengthened it. When Sullivan was deported, both he and Adams left the country. They lived in exile for a little over a year, but feeling disconnected from family and friends, they returned to the United States. Having crossed the US border illegally from Mexico, Sullivan has lived in the United States as an undocumented immigrant for the better part of 30 years.
Limited Partnership, which premiered at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival and later won the IDA Humanitas Award, airs June 15 on PBS' Independent Lens and will be available on iTunes on June 23 in the US and Canada. The film chronicles Adams and Sullivan's 40-year relationship. At its heart Limited Partnership is a love story showing what people will do to stay together. In order to understand the couple's story, you have to feel the weight of being in a committed relationship while living with the fear that at any time immigration officers could knock on Sullivan's door, take him away and deport him to Australia, where he hasn't lived for decades.
The film opens with archival footage from 1980. In it we see Adams, Sullivan and attorney David M. Brown outside the Federal Courthouse in Los Angeles. Brown says, "We're asking the court to order the Immigration and Naturalization Service to recognize the validity of the marriage between Tony Sullivan and Richard Adams. Tony is an Australian citizen and he's seeking through Richard to be permitted to stay in this country on a permanent basis as a spouse of an American citizen." A journalist asks, "Has there been a case like this before, or is this a precedent-setting case?" Brown responds, "There's never been a case involving whether or not gay men or women have the right to marry one another brought in the federal courts. This is the first one."
After brief sound bites from both Adams and Sullivan in 1980 describing their commitment to and love for one another, the film cuts to the opening credits, a spectacular graphics sequence that is a visual account of their life together—and the country's social/political evolution—beginning in the 1970s through the 2000s. You see the country go from a time when more than 60 percent of Americans opposed same-sex marriage to today, where over 50 percent support it.
Social and political context is key, says Miller. "One of the reasons I wanted to tell this story was because I think a lot of people—gay and straight—think that this marriage issue is something fairly recent. I really wanted people to recognize that this has been going on since the beginning of the gay and lesbian movement, since the beginning of the women's movement, since the end of the Vietnam War. This is not something new—everyday people were fighting this fight."
During the course of the film, the country changes a lot—from 1975, when Adams and Sullivan got married in Colorado; to 1976, when the Supreme Court decided that homosexual acts were illegal; to 1996, with the passage of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which allowed states to deny federal benefits to gay couples, even if they were legally married in other states; to 2004, when Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage; and finally to 2013, when DOMA was overturned by the Supreme Court.
Court cases and legal issues are infused throughout the film but during the editing process Miller (who co-edited the film with co-producer Kirk Marcolina) distilled legal twists and turns down to the bare essentials. Miller says it was important to show that the case got to the Supreme Court, and that Justice Anthony Kennedy cast the deciding vote. "Just before he was a Supreme Court Justice, Kennedy deported Tony, so that had to be the high point that people would remember."
But the film is not just about gay marriage, asserts Miller. "It's about Richard and Tony and their love story of trying to stay together against all odds. They were willing to do anything to be together, and they did. They spent their whole life together, and the government never separated them. That was to me the love story, and the most important thing to show was that they were as committed as anybody else and should have the same rights as anybody else."
Love prevails throughout the film in scenes such as Sullivan's 60th birthday and the couple's 40th anniversary. The love is visibly apparent but it wasn't always easy—at times Sullivan's undocumented status overshadows their relationship—and was certainly a contributing factor to health issues faced by both. In a poignant scene of the couple at the hospital, both men are getting physical exams. They acknowledge that stress has had an impact on their health—Adams had a stroke and was later diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer, and Sullivan had a heart attack and a stroke.
Because of Sullivan's undocumented status, the couple stayed out of the public eye for many years, but after the 2008 passage of Proposition 8 in California, which eliminated the rights of same-sex couples to marry, Adams and Sullivan began making public appearances to support marriage equality. "What was wonderful and what got us through…was our relationship," they say in the film, at a rally in Los Angeles. "It was our need to live for each other—and this is something that is so important about relationships. It's not just, 'Let's go off and get married…'"
There's a moment in the film when Sullivan is interviewed after speaking at a marriage equality rally. "I feel more open," he says. "We're out of the closet in some ways." Looking back on the experience of making Limited Partnership over the course of nearly 13 years, Miller says it has been exhilarating, frustrating, happy and sad. "It's taken me through all the emotions I have in my body. As a gay man, it's given me role models to look to. I can see that everyday people can make a difference in our society. It gives me hope."
It's hard to believe that Miller began work on the film before any state in the union had officially legalized same-sex marriage. But by the end of June, the US Supreme Court will have decided if all states must allow same-sex couples to marry. And it is quite likely the swing vote on this issue will again be Justice Anthony Kennedy. "It's just so crazy and hopefully so wonderful," says Miller.
Editor's Note: On June 26, 2015, by a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court ruled that the right to same-sex marriage is guaranteed by the Constitution. Justice Kennedy wrote the majority opinion.
Update--June 16, 2016: Tony Sullivan, the protagonist of the film, received his green card after waiting 41 years, thanks to the impact the film had in the debate on LGBT marriage and immigration equality.
Laura Almo is an assistant professor of film at El Camino College and a contributing editor at Documentary Magazine. She is working on a project on earthquake relief in Nepal and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.