Richard Adams, trailblazer for gay marriage rights; at 65

Richard Adams (left) filed the first federal lawsuit seeking gay marriage recognition after his partner, Tony Sullivan (right), was denied permanent US residency status.
Los Angeles Times/file 1984
Richard Adams (left) filed the first federal lawsuit seeking gay marriage recognition after his partner, Tony Sullivan (right), was denied permanent US residency status.

LOS ANGELES — Richard Adams, who used both the altar and the courtroom to help begin the push for gay marriage four decades before it reached the center of the national consciousness, has died, his attorney said Sunday.

After a brief illness, Mr. Adams died Dec. 17 at age 65 in the Hollywood home he shared with Tony Sullivan, his partner of 43 years, attorney Lavi Soloway said.

‘‘Theirs was a pretty remarkable story,’’ said Soloway. ‘‘They were far ahead of their time when they took up the fight to have their legal Colorado marriage recognized by the federal government.’’


Mr. Adams and Sullivan met at a Los Angeles gay bar called The Closet in 1971, but their life and relationship would soon be on display for a worldwide audience.

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They were granted a marriage license in 1975, but for years fought in vain to see it recognized by governments and a population for whom the idea of two married men was strange and foreign. They were subjected to antigay slurs even from government agencies.

‘‘They felt that in the end, the most important thing was their love for each other, and in that respect they won,’’ Soloway said. ‘‘No government or no law was ever able to keep them apart.’’

The couple’s public life began when they heard about Clela Rorex, a county clerk in Boulder, Colo., and a pioneer in her own right, who decided she would give marriage licenses to gay couples after learning from the district attorney’s office that nothing in Colorado law expressly forbade it.

Rorex’s office became what The New York Times soon after called ‘‘a mini-Nevada for homosexual couples.’’


Among the first couples to take advantage were Mr. Adams and Sullivan, who had a ceremony at the First Unitarian Church of Denver. They were granted a license from Rorex before the state’s attorney general ordered her to stop giving them to gay couples.

Their primary motivation in marrying was to get permanent US residency status for Sullivan, an Australian, and they promptly put in an application with what was then called the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

They received a one-sentence denial from INS that was stunning in its bluntness.

‘‘You have failed to establish that a bona fide marital relationship can exist between two faggots,’’ the letter said.

Mr. Adams’s attempt to have that decision overturned was the first federal lawsuit seeking gay marriage recognition, according to the Advocate magazine and the Los Angeles Times, the first media outlets to report his death.


He took the INS to court in 1979 and over several years in court was met only with rejections.

But the couple became a hot topic, especially as Sullivan’s deportation became likely in the mid-1980s, and they appeared on the ‘‘Today’’ show and ‘‘The Phil Donahue Show,’’ giving some of the first national attention to gay marriage when it was considered an oddity even by future supporters.

Mr. Adams’s application for Australian residency was also denied, so the couple spent a year in Europe before returning to the United States and a low-profile life in Los Angeles.

They recently reemerged as their issue finally gained traction in courts and voting booths.

They’re the subject of an upcoming documentary, ‘‘Limited Partnership,’’ and just two days before Mr. Adams’s death they were working with Soloway on a challenge to the federal Defense of Marriage Act, one of two laws the US Supreme Court has agreed to hear in its upcoming term.

‘‘After 40 years of fighting he missed the outcome at the Supreme Court,’’ Soloway said, ‘‘but he felt optimistic.’’

And Mr. Adams got to see what he deemed a major victory for his particular cause, immigration law for gay couples, in October when the Obama administration issued written policy guidelines saying same-sex couples in long-term partnerships ‘‘rise to the level of a ‘family relationship’’’ when it comes to deportation.

‘‘You can draw a straight line from Tony and Richard’s efforts in the 1970s to that piece of paper in 2012,’’ Soloway said.