Anthony Sullivan, 72, had to wait over forty years for his marriage to be deemed legally valid by the federal government but this month – after a four-decade long wait – he was finally granted a green card based on his April 1975 same-sex marriage to Richard Adams.
Adams originally filed the green card petition for Sullivan, a native of Australia, in 1975. After Adams died in December 2012, Sullivan sought to have the Immigration Service recognize their forty-year marriage and grant him a green card as the widower of a U.S. citizen.
The green card, granting Sullivan permanent residence status, was finally issued on the 41st anniversary of his Boulder, CO marriage to Adams – a unique same-sex marriage that remained on the state records without being invalidated by Colorado officials.
The couple’s remarkable four-decade long story began on April 21, 1975, after they learned that the county clerk in Boulder was issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Adams, a U.S. citizen, married Sullivan at the registration office and received a legal marriage certificate, then the couple (together since 1971) returned home to Los Angeles where Adams filed a green card petition with the INS on Sullivan’s behalf.
Reluctant trailblazers, they became one of the first gay couples in American history to legally marry, and the first on record to sue the U.S. government for recognition of their marriage.
But in 1975 immigration authorities famously rejected the couple’s green card petition, writing that the pair had “failed to establish that a bona fide marital relationship can exist between two faggots.”
Over the next ten years the couple brought an exhaustive but ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit against the Immigration and Naturalization Service in federal court. When the final ruling was handed down from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1985 they were forced to quit the country.
When they quietly returned to the U.S. in 1986, they were then forced by circumstances to keep a low profile, living in constant fear of Sullivan’s deportation.
But the shadow they had lived under all their lives finally lifted just before Adam’s death in 2012. That year the Obama administration issued a memo to protect all low-risk family members of U.S. citizens from deportation, including same-sex partners of American citizens.
Forty-one years after they received a bluntly bigoted letter from immigration authorities, the White House asked the Director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services to issue a written apology to the long suffering couple.
In 2016, in the same Los Angeles Immigration office that originally denied Sullivan’s green card petition, immigration authorities finally recognized the marriage and determined that Sullivan should be treated like all other surviving spouses under U.S. immigration law.
In December 2012 when Adams was dying of cancer, attorney Lavi Soloway strongly urged the couple to consider remarrying in Washington state. After some discussion the couple reluctantly agreed, deciding to think of it as a renewal of their vows rather than a completely new wedding. Adams passed away the next day.
Stricken by grief Sullivan was nonetheless determined that his decades-long marriage to Adams should be honored with all the dignity and legal protections offered to other widowers.
“I wrote to President Obama,” he told the press. “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. Because he loved his country.”
Leon Rodriguez, the director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, later wrote to Sullivan on behalf of the President: “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.”
Now, with full recognition of their marriage and his news green card in hand, Sullivan reflects on the forty-one years the couple's journey took.
“The same office that said we had failed to establish that a relationship can exist between two faggots now says yes. And on the day of our anniversary!”