Richard Adams, left, and his partner, Anthony Sullivan, are shown in 1984.… (Los Angeles Times )
Thirty-seven years ago, Richard Adams made history when he and his partner of four years, Anthony Sullivan, became one of the first gay couples in the country to be granted a marriage license. It happened in Boulder, Colo., where a liberal county clerk issued licenses to six same-sex couples in the spring of 1975.
Adams had hoped to use his marriage to secure permanent residency in the United States for Sullivan, an Australian who had been in the country on a limited visa and was facing deportation.
But Colorado's attorney general declared the Boulder marriages invalid. Several months later, Adams and Sullivan received a letter from the Immigration and Naturalization Service that denied Sullivan's petition for resident status in terms that left no doubt about the reason:
"You have failed to establish that a bona fide marital relationship can exist between two faggots," the notification read.
Adams, who later filed the first federal lawsuit demanding recognition of same-sex marriages, died Monday at his home in Hollywood after a brief illness, said his attorney, Lavi Soloway. He was 65.
Soloway described Adams and Sullivan as "pioneers who stood up and fought for something nobody at that time conceived of as a right, the right of gay couples to be married.
"Attitudes at the time were not supportive, to put it mildly," Soloway said. "They went on the Donahue show and people in the audience said some pretty nasty things. But they withstood it all because they felt it was important to speak out."
Born in Manila on March 9, 1947, Adams immigrated to the U.S. with his family when he was 12. He grew up in Long Prairie, Minn., studied liberal arts at the University of Minnesota and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1968.
By 1971 he was working in Los Angeles, where he met Sullivan and fell in love.
Four years later, the two men heard about Boulder County Clerk Clela Rorex: She had decided to issue marriage licenses to gay couples after the Boulder district attorney's office advised her that nothing in state law explicitly prohibited it.
On April 21, 1975, they obtained their license and exchanged marriage vows at the First Unitarian Church of Denver.
The Boulder marriages attracted national media attention, including an article in the New York Times that called Colorado "a mini-Nevada for homosexual couples." Rorex received obscene phone calls, as well as a visit from a cowboy who protested by demanding to marry his horse. (Rorex said she turned him down because the 8-year-old mare was underage.)
After their marriage, Adams and Sullivan filed a petition with the INS seeking permanent residency for Sullivan as the spouse of a U.S. citizen. In November 1975, they received the immigration agency's derogatory letter and lodged a formal protest. Officials reissued the denial notice without the word "faggots."
They took the agency to court in 1979, challenging the constitutionality of the denial. A federal district judge in Los Angeles upheld the INS decision, and Adams and Sullivan lost subsequent appeals.
In a second lawsuit, the couple argued that Sullivan's deportation after an eight-year relationship with Adams would constitute an "extreme hardship." In 1985 a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the hardship argument and opened the way for Sullivan to be sent back to Australia.
Because Australia had already turned down Adams' request for residency in that country, the couple decided the only way they could stay together was to leave the U.S. In 1985, they flew to Britain and drifted through Europe for the next year.
"It was the most difficult period because I had to leave my family as well as give up my job of 18 1/2 years. It was almost like death," Adams said in "Limited Partnership," a documentary scheduled for release next year.
The pair ended their self-imposed exile after a year and came home. They lived quietly in Los Angeles to avoid drawing the attention of immigration officials, but in recent years began to appear at rallies supporting same-sex marriage, Soloway said.
They were encouraged by new guidelines issued by the Obama administration this fall instructing immigration officials to stop deporting foreigners in long-standing same-sex relationships with U.S. citizens.
Although the policy change came more than three decades after Adams and Sullivan raised the issue, it gave Adams "a sense of vindication," Soloway said.
The day before he died, Sullivan told him that the most important victory was that they were able to remain a couple.
"Richard looked at me," Sullivan told Soloway, "and said, 'Yeah, you're right. We've won.'"
Adams, who was an administrator for a law firm until his retirement in 2010, is survived by Sullivan; his mother, Elenita; sisters Stella, Kathy, Julie and Tammie; and a brother, Tony.