An American Marriage, Revisited

Niela OrrApril 24, 2015
Tony Sullivan and Richard Adams / Limited Partnership

Tony Sullivan and Richard Adams / Limited Partnership

Limited Partnership, a new documentary about one of the nation’s first gay couples to be lawfully married, begins with a scene you might find in a legal thriller: an establishing shot of gray-slate courthouse columns gives way to a scrum of reporters positioned nearby. Then, this eighties archival footage reveals the film’s two stars, Richard Adams, an American, and Tony Sullivan, an Australian national: they’re both surrounded—swamped, almost—by the media circus as their attorney relays the details of their case to the reporters. “There’s never been a case involving whether or not gay men or women have the right to marry each other brought to federal court. This is the first one,” explains lawyer David M. Brown.

It’s a fittingly frenzied opening scene, since the protagonists, their legal team, and the American media culture were all, in different degrees, making up the narrative for the Adams and Sullivan case as they went along. The two gay men at the center of all this tentative action would go on to spend forty years fighting in court fighting to win legal recognition for their 1975 marriage. Before the Defense of Marriage Act, California’s Proposition 8, and Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Sullivan and Adams were on the front lines, mounting a tireless campaign against the Immigration and Naturalization Service and its policy of separating binational same-sex couples.

The documentary, which has been making the rounds on the festival circuit since last year, and is set to air on June 15 as part of PBS’s Independent Lens series, sharply exposes the ways in which the American judicial system and the INS (which has since been absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security as Immigration and Customs Enforcement) have worked in tandem to undermine the legal union of Adams and Sullivan, and to separate the two by deporting Sullivan back to Australia.

But first, the film deftly establishes the couple’s California home base and romantic foundation. A running timeline marks the early courtship between the two men, who met at The Closet bar in Los Angeles on Cinco de Mayo in 1971, and had their first date near Greta Garbo’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. After years of leaving and reentering the country in order to maximize Sullivan’s travel visa, the couple found a glimmer of hope in a news story about a feminist Boulder County clerk, Clela Rorex, who had issued a marriage license to two men in March 1975. Rorex married Sullivan and Adams on April 21, 1975, and they immediately became the subject of a national media spectacle, along with Dave Zamora and Dave McCord, the first gay couple wed in Boulder County. In one Tonight Show monologue, for example, Johnny Carson lampooned a cowboy who tried to get Rorex to marry him and his horse—a precursor to Rick Santorum’s considerably more earnest objection that gay marriage would inevitably pave the way for legal recognition of bestiality. The couple’s application for Sullivan’s green card amazingly got a more hateful and dismissive reply from the INS: “You have failed to establish that a bona fide marital relationship can exist between two faggots.”

That outburst launched Adams and Sullivan on a decade-long battle with the immigration agency, Eventually, their efforts to appeal the ruling ran aground, and they were forced to move to Europe—a setback they were able to sidestep for years by stealthily reentering the United States for long stretches via the Mexico-California border. The letter served as the symbolic totem that propelled their fight—and by extension, its reconstruction in Limited Partnership. It’s a bracing reminder of another time in American political and sexual mores: this was, after all, the same general band of federal law enforcers who taped and distributed recordings of Martin Luther King Jr.’s extramarital affairs (while also conspiring to conceal those of the era’s white New Frontier leader, John F. Kennedy).

There’s a still larger, and considerably more ironic, dramatic arc to the Limited Partnership saga: that Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy, who decided against the couple in 1985, was the swing-voter in the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act. Ultimately, though, the dispassionate, procedure-driven film that director Thomas D. Miller has made undercuts this revelation.  

Although Limited Partnership shares some broad themes and narrative tics in common with other documentary films that heavily concern legal matters, such as a visual timeline and a rapid-fire presentation of archival material straight out of Zelig or a Ken Burns documentary, it doesn’t have the pace of a conventional nail-biter. It unfolds slowly, and the delicate piano work that scores the film plays to the plaintive intimacy of the couple’s battle, as opposed to the clangorous Danny Elfman or Jerry Goldschmidt soundtrack of a standard Hollywood action yarn. There’s a resistance to sensationalizing the plight of Sullivan and Adams; Miller instead favors a more practical appeal. In another film, or with another director, Adams and Sullivan’s fugitive status would have been a steady source of dramatic tension. Instead, matter-of-fact declarations of Sullivan’s undocumented status and the couple’s financial instability are intercut with footage from the latter’s sixtieth birthday party, and quiet scenes of domesticity, such as the couple’s affectionate fortieth anniversary dinner. There’s plenty of footage of Adams and Sullivan walking together, gardening, shopping, playfully bickering over ways to make tea, etc. The film’s focus on the loving relationship between the two men despite their physical precariousness makes the legal narrative feel like B-roll, instead of the other way around. 

The couple’s frightful but exhilarating tale of sneaking into the United States, which might have been drawn out for greater dramatic effect, is likewise treated here with understatement. It’s capped by a grim footnote: the friend who smuggled the couple into the country passed away of AIDS the same year they returned, as did their attorney David Brown, and a host of other friends. By the end of the film, Adams’s lung cancer, which ultimately claimed his life in December 2012, feels far more harrowing than the threat of still more obstruction and pettiness from ICE. 

“We were dreamers, but we still believe that love will triumph and change the world,” Sullivan says in 2011, before the film segues into the couple’s appearance at a benefit for binational same-sex couples. He and Adams pose for portraits, together with couples facing the same cruel dilemma of choosing the people they love over their homeland—or vice versa. The images produced, which intentionally feature the blurred face of the undocumented partner, effectively remind viewers of the much-more-than figurative obstacle in their way, as well as a de facto call to arms: this fuzzy erasure, symbolic of the broad-stroke denials of the U.S. government, is a thing to work against. Limited Partnership is a rarity in the cliché-friendly world of cinematic tales of injustice overcome: it pointedly illuminates the pioneering couple in their quotidian humanity. In its own quiet fashion, this is an invaluable way to make clear the genuine stakes in all such struggles.

Niela Orr is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles. More of her work can be found at www.nielaorr.com.