In a Landmark Case Spanning Four Decades, USCIS Recognizes Same-sex Marriage from 1975 and Approves Gay Couple’s Immigrant Visa Petition That It Had Denied 41 Years Ago, After Board of Immigration Appeals Reopens the Case
In a series of recent decisions, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) have recognized as valid the April 21, 1975 marriage of two gay men, Richard Adams and Anthony Sullivan, leading to the agency’s approval of a green card petition filed by Adams 41 years ago on behalf of Sullivan, an Australian citizen.
“The federal government’s recognition of their 1975 marriage is groundbreaking because it affirms that the constitutional protection of the right to marry extends to a marriage entered into by a same sex couple that took place decades ago,” said their attorney Lavi Soloway.
“This outcome is an example of the potentially far reaching ripple effects of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 landmark marriage equality decision in Obergefell v Hodges,” Soloway added.
After Adams and Sullivan married in Boulder, Colorado in 1975, Adams filed immigration petition so that Sullivan could be granted a “green card” as his spouse. The petition was infamously denied by the Los Angeles District Office of the then-INS on November 24, 1975 with just one offensive sentence: “You have failed to establish that a bona fide marital relationship can exist between two faggots.”
Adams died in December 2012, but Sullivan continued their four decade long fight for recognition of their marriage and for a “green card” under provisions of the immigration law that include surviving spouses of American citizens as “immediate relatives.” In 2014, Sullivan, through his attorney, Lavi Soloway, filed a Motion to Reopen and Reconsider Adams’ denied petition citing changed laws and numerous recent court rulings on same-sex marriage.
“In 2014 we asked USCIS to take the steps necessary to reopen Adams’ 1975 petition in light of the Supreme Court ruling striking down the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” and subsequent victories by gay couples in marriage equality cases.” The last ruling on their petition had been issued by the Board of Immigration Appeals in 1978,” explained Soloway.
Sullivan also wrote to President Obama, requesting that the government issue an apology, posthumously, to Richard Adams, for the degrading and outrageous language used in the denial of his green card petition in 1975. The White House referred the request to the Director of the USCIS, Léon Rodriguez, who on August 27, 2014, issued a heartfelt written apology to both Richard and Tony “for the deeply offensive and hateful language used in the November 24, 1975 decision.”
“After the Supreme Court ruling on Marriage Equality, USCIS acted on our request to apply constitutionally valid principles to the 1975 green card petition. As a result, on December 1, 2015 the Board of Immigration Appeals ordered the petition be reopened and remanded the matter to USCIS to reconsider the original denial,” said attorney Lavi Soloway.
In January 2016, USCIS approved the “green card” petition that Richard Adams, a naturalized U.S. citizen, had filed on April 28, 1975 on behalf of his Australian spouse, Anthony Sullivan. USCIS interviewed Sullivan at the Los Angeles District Office in March this year, in the same office from which the predecessor agency, the INS, had issued the denial using an anti-gay epithet four decades earlier.
On April 21, 2016, on what would have been the couple’s 41st wedding anniversary, USCIS approved Anthony Sullivan’s green card application. The “green card” was received by Sullivan last month at his home in Hollywood.
With the federal government’s recognition of their 1975 marriage as valid, Sullivan and Adams have become the first same-sex couple in U.S. history to be legally married. They lived together and remained married until Richard Adams’ death on December 17, 2012, giving them the added distinction of being the longest married same-sex couple in U.S. history to date.
While a series of decisions in recent months by the Board of Immigration Appeals and USCIS led to this outcome, Richard and Tony’s case itself has a long history.
Thomas G. Miller and Kirk Marcolina meticulously chronicled their 40-year love story and struggle to remain together in the 2014 feature documentary “Limited Partnership.” It had its national broadcast on PBS’ Independent Lens series on June 15, 2015 and brought renewed attention to the couple’s untenable situation.
On April 21, 1975, Anthony Sullivan and Richard Adams—who had been together as a couple at that time for almost four years—were issued a marriage license by a Boulder, Colorado County Clerk, Clela Rorex, and were married on the same day. Rorex made headlines nationwide at the time when she issued licenses to six gay couples; the state of Colorado never invalidated them.
After receiving the initial stinging rejection of Richard Adams’ marriage-based petition in 1975, the couple fought back, bringing what became a high-profile lawsuit in federal court demanding that the government recognize their marriage for immigration purposes. The legal challenge was a steep uphill effort that was rejected at each step by the courts.
“The primary case, Adams v. Howerton, sought to force the immigration service to recognize their marriage so that Anthony would be allowed to remain in the United States permanently as the spouse of a U.S. citizen. Their argument — that to discriminate against them because they were two men was a violation of their constitutional rights — is familiar and obvious today, but at the time it was unheard of,” said their attorney, Lavi Soloway.
After ten years of litigation they lost a final appeal before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The 1985 ruling dismissing the appeal, which forced Sullivan to leave the United States or be deported within 60 days, was written by Judge Anthony Kennedy, who, after being appointed to the Supreme Court, went on to be the swing vote and author of the U.S. Supreme Court’s two major decisions in the last three years that extended constitutional protection to same-sex marriages.
“The unique and historic nature of this case cannot be understated. The U.S. government not only apologized directly to Anthony Sullivan, but, for the first time since the Supreme Court established the right of same-sex couples to marry as a protected, fundamental liberty—the Immigration Service has shown its willingness to correctly apply recent Court rulings and to recognize as valid this same-sex marriage that took place in 1975. Undaunted by setbacks in the 1970s and 1980s Richard and Anthony never wavered in their belief that their marriage was valid and should be treated with dignity and respect. Eventually the Supreme Court and the Immigration Service caught up with them,” said their attorney, Lavi Soloway.
Forced to leave the U.S. in 1985, Sullivan, along with Adams, traveled to Europe and spent eleven months bouncing around that continent until they returned to the U.S. Sullivan remained in the United States for decades and vowed not to be separated from Adams, despite never being granted lawful immigration status.
Anthony Sullivan was honored at an LGBT Pride event in June 2016 by the Mayor of West Hollywood, Lauren Meister, who issued an official proclamation recognizing Sullivan’s extraordinary role as a pioneer in the gay rights movement.
Anthony Sullivan released the following statement after receiving his green card:
“By issuing the green card, the government agreed that we should be treated with the same respect, dignity and legal status as any other married couple.
Of course this moment is bittersweet because I cannot share it with Richard. But at the same time, I have finished the mission that shaped our lives as a couple. We were never separated, it is true. But we also won because we didn’t back down, we never gave up, we believed in ourselves and in the love that we had for each other.
For this I have tremendous gratitude to all who have fought with us and have helped make this day possible. I feel deeply that Richard and I had the opportunity to make a difference, and that is a remarkable thing. I hope our story inspires others to fight injustice, just as we were inspired by those who came before us. Richard would be so happy today with the result. We can look back on our lives and say that despite all the difficulties, Richard and I had a wonderful life together.”
FOR INTERVIEWS WITH ANTHONY SULLIVAN, LAVI SOLOWAY OR CLELA ROREX
CALL/TEXT 323-457-4205 OR EMAIL [email protected]
The DOMA Project is a pro bono advocacy and education campaign focused on the historic exclusion of married gay and lesbian couples under U.S. immigration law and its lasting effects.
FOR INFORMATION about the documentary “LIMITED PARTNERSHIP”
CALL/TEXT Director THOMAS G. MILLER TEL:310-663-9874
DOCUMENTS AND PHOTOS ATTACHED TO THIS PRESS RELEASE
- USCIS DECISION APPROVING APRIL 28, 1975 GREEN CARD PETITION
- USCIS APRIL 21, 2016 APPROVAL OF ANTHONY SULLIVAN’S GREEN CARD
- A COPY OF ANTHONY SULLIVAN’S GREEN CARD
- COPY OF MARRIAGE LICENSE (CERTIFIED COPY RECEIVED FROM THE OFFICE OF THE BOULDER COLORADO COUNTY CLERK AND RECORDER ON APRIL 8, 2014)
- DECEMBER 1, 2016 BOARD OF IMMIGRATION APPEALS RULING
- TWO PHOTOS OF ANTHONY SULLIVAN RECEIVING GREEN CARD (CREDIT: DAVID W ROSS): Photo 1, Photo 2
- PHOTO OF ANTHONY SULLIVAN AND ATTORNEY LAVI SOLOWAY LEAVING THE FEDERAL BUILDING IN DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES ON APRIL 21, 2014 AFTER FILING THE MOTION THAT EVENTUALLY RESULTED IN THE APPROVAL OF HIS GREEN CARD CASE (CREDIT: DAVID W ROSS)
- PHOTO OF RICHARD AND TONY IN 1975 (CREDIT: PAT ROCCO)
- NOVEMBER 24, 1975 DENIAL OF RICHARD ADAMS’ PETITION (THE INFAMOUS “TWO FAGGOTS” LETTER)
- 2014 APOLOGY LETTER FROM USCIS DIRECTOR LEON RODRIGUEZ
- CHRONOLOGICAL HISTORY OF THE CASE