Forty years ago, a young clerk in Boulder (CO) gave marriage licenses to six same-sex couples before the state attorney general discontinued the practice. Clela Rorex made history, and one couple, Anthony Corbett Sullivan and Richard Frank Adams, made more history when they sued the government after the U.S. government denied an application for Sullivan, an Australian, to stay in the United States although he was married to a citizen. The response on the denial read, “You have failed to establish that a bona fide marital relationship can exist between two faggots.”
The 9th Circuit Court ruled against Adams’ suit to obtain an immigrant visa for Sullivan, stating that Colorado might recognize the marriage but the federal government would not. The couple did not quit: Sullivan filed a new suit, arguing that his deportation constituted an extreme hardship because ending his relationship with Adams would “cause him personal anguish and hurt.” He also wrote that his deportation to Australia would be an undue hardship “because homosexuals are not accepted in that society and because the members of his own family who live in Australia have turned against him.”
The author of the opinion against Sullivan in the same court was Anthony Kennedy, the same Kennedy who is one of nine U.S. Supreme Court justices to hear tomorrow’s arguments on legalizing marriage equality. Kennedy justified his rejection of Sullivan’s arguments:
“Even if all of Sullivan’s arguments are accepted at face value, they do not necessarily constitute a showing of extreme hardship as the term is defined in the immigration laws. Deportation rarely occurs without personal distress and emotional hurt.”
A dissenting judge explained that this case was different: “Most deported aliens can return to their native lands with their closest companions. But Sullivan would be precluded from doing so because Adams allegedly would not be permitted to emigrate to Australia.” That judge, however, was in the minority.
The story of Adams and Sullivan is the subject of a documentary, Limited Partnership, that airs on public television’s program Independent Lens on June 15, 2015.
The U.S. Supreme Court avoided hearing any same-sex marriage cases until two of them appeared in 2013, one about California’s Prop 8 and the other connected to declaring that New York’s Edie Windsor is legally a widow after her female partner died. Although SCOTUS accepted the 1972 Baker v. Nelson case in 1975 about two Minnesota men suing to be married, it dismissed the suit “for want of a substantial federal question.”
Rorex wasn’t the first clerk to permit a marriage license for a same-sex couple when she started doing this in March 1975. The first recognized marriage license for a same-sex couple was in Maricopa County (AZ) two months earlier when the person behind the counter issued the license because Arizona had no law banning same-sex couples. An Arizona judge declared the license invalid by citing the book of Genesis, and the gay couple did not pursue it further. The Arizona legislature than banned marriage equality.
Adams and Sullivan, however, were the first same-sex couple who took the matter to the courts after their marriage was declared invalid.
Until 1973, when Maryland passed the first ban on marriage equality, no state had any restriction on gender in a marriage statute.
After Rorex started handing out marriage licenses to same-sex couples, a man showed up with his horse, Dolly, and asked for a marriage license for the two of them. Rorex asked the horse’s age and then denied the application because, at 8 years old, Dolly was too young to marry without her parents’ written consent.
Talking about giving same-sex couples marriage licenses, Rorex said:
“If I had the opportunity to do it over again, I would do it with more conviction this time. Then I knew nothing about gay and lesbian relationships. I only knew one gay man. But I knew it was the right thing to do. My only regret in this is that people with long-term loving relationships still can’t get married. I now know several gay and lesbian couples who have been together for years. They reaffirm to me that this is an issue of human rights, civil rights. All the fanatical hatemongering about it is frightening and infuriating.”
A 2011 interview with Rorex, 70, is available here.
The couple denied marriage rights because of Kennedy’s ruling stayed together until Adams (left) died in 2012. Sullivan, 73, still has the license and the “faggot letter.” He tells about pursuing the lawsuit until Kennedy ruled in 1985 that Sullivan could be deported, a decision that led the couple to fly to London and move to Northern Ireland. About their 41-year relationship, Sullivan said, “Not to get sloppy, but he meant everything to me, and I meant everything to him.” This statement resonates with millions of same-sex couples.
An ironic part of Kennedy’s opinion against the couple is that Kennedy went on to author the protection of LGBT citizens in Romer v. Evans (1996); the abolition of anti-homosexual sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas (2003); and the striking down of a vital piece of the federal DOMA in United States v. Windsor (2013).
After trying other methods of keeping Adams in the United States, the couple had gone to Rorex after the Advocate published an article about her giving a marriage license to a gay couple. The newly-hired clerk found nothing in the law to stop her, and a county attorney agreed. She said that she didn’t know anyone from the LGBT community, but she sensed the same discrimination as against women.
At their first news conference after getting married, a reporter asked Sullivan, “Oh, and what is it that either of you do in bed?” He answered, “If you tell me what you and your wife do in bed, I’ll be happy to tell you what we do in bed.”
Lonely for their home in the United States and Adams’ family, the couple moved back to the states where Sullivan lived in what he calls the “immigration closet.” He worked as the building manager and paid his taxes. Sullivan’s immigration status is still unsettled because he refused to marry Adams—again. He maintains that “Richard and I have never budged on the concept that the Boulder marriage was legitimate—it’s still in the books.” Friends persuaded the reluctant couple to go to Washington state for a wedding in December 2012, but Adams died of lung cancer the next day.
Since then, Sullivan received a work permit and later a letter from the government after he wrote President Obama. “I requested, basically for Richard, an apology for the faggot letter, because I felt that as an American citizen, he didn’t deserve to have that on his record,” Sullivan said. “Because he loved his country.” León Rodriguez, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the successor to the INS, responded:
“This agency should never treat any individual with the disrespect shown toward you and Mr. Adams. You have my sincerest apology for the years of hurt caused by the deeply offensive and hateful language used in the November 24, 1975, decision and my deepest condolences on your loss.”
Sullivan now has a widower’s petition pending before the agency. He will be in Washington, D.C. tomorrow for the Supreme Court’s marriage equality argument in a case that will decide the fate of millions of people in the United States–same-sex couples and their children. Adams and Sullivan’s story is just one that shows the inequities in marriage.
A patchwork collection of laws from courts, legislatures, and popular vote give rights to some same-sex couples but not all. Today, same-sex couples can be married in 37 states and Washington, D.C. with full state rights and many federal benefits. Some of the other 13 states allow them marital and federal rights if they were married in another states with marriage equality; some of them don’t. The Supreme Court will decide whether all people in same-sex marriages deserve the same rights as those given opposite-sex couples.
Clela Rorex said: “My toes and fingers are crossed,” Rorex says. “It just has to go forward. We cannot have piecemeal civil rights in our country. And to me, marriage equality is a civil rights issue. It’s a human rights issue.”
It’s time for LGBT people to get one of their constitutional rights—legal marriage.