Richard Adams, Marriage Equality Pioneer, Dies at Age 65

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December 24, 2012
Courtesy of Herald Examiner Collection / Los Angeles Public Library
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Decades before a majority of Americans believed that same-gender couples should be allowed to marry, Richard Adams (right) married his partner Anthony Sullivan (center), an Australian (pictured here with attorney David M. Brown).

Adams and Sullivan met at a Los Angeles bar in 1971 and quickly fell in love.  On March 20, 1975 at the Metropolitan Community Church, a lesbian and gay Christian congregation, Adams and Sullivan solemnized their partnership in a religious ceremony. 

The two planned to petition the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) for residency for Sullivan under the concept of freedom of religion.

Soon after the ceremony, the couple read that the county clerk of Boulder, Colorado, was issuing marriage licenses to gay couples. Adams and Sullivan boarded a plane and married in Boulder on April 21, 1975.

Four days later, Adams petitoned the INS to classify Sullivan as his immediate relative, thereby allowing his new spouse to remain in the country. The INS district director denied the petition, writing: "You have failed to establish that a bona fide marital relationship can exist between two faggots."

Adams brought a lawsuit to overturn the INS's decision, the first federal lawsuit seeking same-gender marriage recognition. In 1979, a judge ruled against the couple.

Six years later, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals also ruled against Adams and Sullivan. Writing for the majority, Anthony Kennedy, later appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, stated, "We do not find that the respondent's separation from his 'life partner' will cause him hardship, emotional or otherwise, sufficient to rise to the level of extreme hardship."

Adams' application for Australian residency had been denied. So after their legal defeats, the couple believed that the only way they could stay together was to leave United States. They traveled in Europe for the following year. Sullivan was able to reenter the U.S. where he and Adams quietly lived in Los Angeles for decades with no legal protection.

Adams lived to see a major victory when in October the Obama administration issued policy guidelines saying that same-gender couples in long-term partnerships "rise to the level of a 'family relationship'" when it comes to deportation.

Learn More

The U.S. Supreme Court recently announced that it will hear two cases dealing with same-gender marriage: one focused on California's Proposition 8 and the other on the federal "Defense of Marriage Act."

Many legal observers consider Justice Kennedy an important vote in both cases.