Limited Partnership chronicles the 40-year love story between Filipino-American Richard Adams and his Australian husband, Tony Sullivan. In 1975, thanks to a courageous county clerk in Boulder, Colorado, Richard and Tony were one of the first same sex couples to be legally married in the world. Richard immediately filed for a green card for Tony based on their marriage. But unlike most heterosexual married couples who easily obtain legal status for their spouses, Richard received a denial letter from the Immigration and Naturalization Service stating, “You have failed to establish that a bona fide marital relationship can exist between two faggots.” Outraged at the tone, tenor, and politics of the letter, and to prevent Tony’s impending deportation, the couple decided to sue the U.S. government, initiating the first federal lawsuit seeking equal treatment for a same sex marriage in U.S. history. A film by Thomas G. Miller, Limited Partnership premieres on Independent Lens Monday, June 15 at 10 p.m. Eastern (check local listings) on PBS.
During a lifetime filled with health issues, money woes, and legal challenges, Richard and Tony never wavered in their love, lost their senses of humor, or gave up their quest for justice. Their personal trajectory parallels the history of the LGBT marriage and immigration equality movements, from their 1971 meeting at an L.A. gay bar called “The Closet,” to the 1975 signing of their marriage license in Colorado, through the era of AIDS, to the historic U.S. Supreme Court rulings on gay marriage in June 2013.
A poignant love story, Limited Partnership celebrates Richard and Tony’s long path as they redefined traditional concepts of “spouse” and “family.”
Thomas G. Miller worked with Richard and Tony for 14 years to put together Limited Partnership. He spoke with me recently in an exclusive Hotspots interview about his motivations for producing this documentary.
You’ve been working on documentaries for over 20 years. How did you first hear about Richard and Tony’s story, and why did you want to turn it into a documentary?
I grew up in Ohio, and I was in the closet for 25 years, and I know I wanted to go into filmmaking to begin with to tell stories so people never felt as alone as I did. That’s also why I connected with Richard and Tony…they lived openly for so long and their love story transcends all odds. The power of the documentary can create social change. That was definitely appealing as well.
The thing that struck the harshest chord with me is the immigration office’s response, in which the word “faggots” is used. I realize it was a different time back then but that seems unprofessional even for 1975. Was the person who wrote the letter ever punished?
No, he was never punished for it, as far as we know. The person who wrote the letter has since passed away. The government did realize that the letter used inappropriate language, but in their final ruling it was almost even more insulting, because Richard’s request for a green card was denied because “neither party in the couple can fulfill the ‘female functions of marriage.'”
A lot of the younger gay generation is unaware of a lot of the struggles people had to deal with living openly 30 and 40 years ago. What would you say to those people to ensure they watch this documentary?
I’m so glad you mentioned that because that’s another one of the reasons why I made this film. I speak to a lot of younger people as a film teacher at USC, so I feel it’s very important to reach out to the younger generation and make sure they know that these two people were some of the pioneers of this movement. They did what they had to do to fight for what they believed in, and went as far as to try to change minds and change our government and they way they do things. I made this documentary to show our history, because gay rights advances didn’t just happen in the last four years ago. These were a long time coming.
We’ve come so far in the last few years as far as gay rights is concerned, but how far do you think we still have left to go?
In 2004, 60% of Americans didn’t approve of same-sex marriage, and now there’s a majority of people who back it. The pendulum has swung so far that we’ll most likely see a day in the very near future when marriage equality is the law of the land in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, and that will be a very joyous day. But then you have to think that, even though we can marry now in most states and we will be able to marry soon in other states, there are quite a few places in this country where you can be fired from your job just for being gay. That needs to change.
Visit the Limited Partnership companion website (http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/limited-partnership/) which features information about the film, including an interview with the filmmaker, preview clips, and more.