Tony Sullivan is no stranger to practicing the art of patience. He navigated through decades of legal fights with the U.S. government over both his own legal status as an immigrant from Australia and the legality of his marriage to the love of his life, Richard Adams. And he was the subject of a film that took nearly 13 years to make, Limited Partnership, which premieres Monday on Independent Lens [10pm; check local listings]. In fact, when the film started production, no state had legalized same-sex marriage, but fast forward to this month, when the Supreme Court is about to rule on whether or not all states must allow it.

It’s possible none of this would have happened if it wasn’t for a progressive county clerk in Boulder, Colorado who had been approving same-sex marriage licenses. Tony says he first learned that gay marriage licenses were being issued in Boulder from TV, including Johnny Carson making a joke about it on The Tonight Show. And eventually the pair made their way to Colorado in 1975 to get married. The license was signed by feminist county clerk Clela Rorex. This set off a firestorm, but also helped set Tony and Richard on a long, historic journey fighting for both marriage equality and immigration rights.

Last week we had the opportunity to sit down with both Tony and Clela together as they visited San Francisco. Clela still lives in Colorado, retired but an activist for civil rights, speaking to students and on panel discussions as an ally of gay rights. “I talk about the requirement to not be a bystander in life, you have to be out there, not just through texting and Facebook,” she says.

Meanwhile, Tony lives in Los Angeles, his home for decades, save a few years he had to live in exile — but more about that in the film.

TONY SULLIVAN

Did you have any hesitation about being a part of this documentary when [director] Tom Miller first approached you?

Tony: We had been approached by many people over the years and we always said no. There are a lot of wannabe filmmakers in Los Angeles, and in the gay community there are a lot wanting to make gay documentaries. We always said, no, no. But when Tom came to us — he was referred by a friend — with [filmmaker] Leo Chiang, who was initially with him on the film. And within 20 minutes of meeting Tom we said yes. And that was because I liked Tom’s quiet, gentle demeanor, and felt confident in him, and Richard liked Leo; Richard is Filipino and Leo is Chinese, and not only was Richard concerned about gay life but was also concerned with Asian Pacific life, and believed in the promotion of that where possible.

When you made the decision to get married in Boulder, did you realize how much flak it might bring you?

Tony Sullivan and Richard Adams receive marriage license in Boulder, CO, April 21, 1975
Tony Sullivan and Richard Adams receive marriage license in Boulder, CO, April 21, 1975

Oh yeah, we weren’t stupid. We both had been involved in the anti-war movement, we were very aware of what happened to people who took a stand against the government. We also belonged to the generation of “peace, love, and happiness” and the generation that helped stop a war. So we expected some opposition. But we also wanted to stay together and were aware of the discriminatory immigration laws which not only stopped gay people from coming in to the country as tourists, but couldn’t get naturalized if you were gay, couldn’t get a green card, and if you had been naturalized they could strip you of that and deport you. So we knew what we were up against. We expected some flak, and we got it.

Along those lines did you have any worries about being in this film, about your own status (as a citizen) as the film became prominent and you along with it?

You know, once you jump off a cliff before you hit the ground below, you can’t very well change your mind so you may as well accept the journey.

And for Richard, too, aside from his health concerns, did he have concerns for you as well, about doing this film?

I discovered later on towards the end of Richard’s life that he always had great concerns for me, more than I’d realized. But Richard and I, when we agreed to do something, we went ahead and did it. We never did make a major decision without consulting each other and when we came to an agreement, whatever it was, we carried it out.

This was after he knew he was getting ill, and was concerned about my future without him.

Now that you’ve seen yourself on the big screen, how is that experience, seeing your story portrayed with an audience?

At first I was uncomfortable. Of course it brought back the sadness at the loss of Richard. Then I realized it was good therapy [laughs] and realized very few people have their life documented the way I did.  A lot of people will tell you about their relationships and people will think, “Oh yeah, he’s romanticizing.” I know my relationship, and see it there in the film. People have been so terribly nice about it that I’m happy to share it, which wasn’t how I initially felt. Initially I thought, “Oh dear, what’s this?”

And has anyone in your own family seen the film, in Australia?

Yes, when it was shown in Sydney, a cousin of mine went and my half-brother went. And another cousin of mine as well. My sister-in-law has now seen the film, too. And I have a cousin who lives in Berkeley who saw it at the Frameline festival. Anyway, I haven’t gotten my sister-in-law’s reaction yet (I’ll see her soon), but my half-brother I think — I don’t know for sure but I sense a trace of homophobia there. But evidently at the end of the screening in Sydney, my cousin got up to say he was my cousin, and suddenly my half-brother — he’s many years younger than me — was sitting behind him in the audience, and leaped out of his seat to say, “He’s my brother! He’s my brother!” I’m told this, anyway. It’s rather a sweet story.

Have you thought about what you’d like people to take away from this film, to be inspired, to act, or…?

Well the thing I’d like people to take not just from this film but I wish they’d learn it from life is to be true to yourself — it’s such a corny line but it’s true — don’t let yourself be oppressed, do what you feel within yourself is right. And don’t be scared to question authority in the system. We questioned it, and yes it was 40 years, but it was the most wonderful 40 years.

Oh, and I’m a great believer in love. I’m from the hippy days, so anything that encourages people to love other people means a lot to me.

The film really is a love story, first.

Oh yeah, that’s what Tom made, and funnily enough I said in Richard’s eulogy, “for 42 years I was in a love story, and how great is that?”

We don’t know exactly what will happen (at this moment) with Supreme Court decision coming up, but if same-sex marriage is rejected, do you have a plan of action?

From what Richard and I went through, the great lesson I learned from this, and it’s a lesson a lot of people spend their life meditating trying to achieve, that a lot of great spiritual people throughout history have talked about, and that is: learning to live for the moment. So I live for the moment, I don’t live for tomorrow, I don’t live for what the Supreme Court is going to do. I mean, Richard and I certainly had to live our life together in the moment, that is probably the extraordinary gift that we were given.

So I’ll deal with whatever Supreme Court decision comes down. You know, one thing you learn from life, unless it’s your last night, is that when you go to bed you’ll get up the next morning and just deal with whatever happens.

CLELA ROREX

Clela was in the National Organization of Women (N.O.W.) in the 1970s, consciousness-raising, as she puts it, but there wasn’t much of a public LGBT activist community in Boulder back then. “I didn’t even know gay people wanted to get married,” she tells us. “I was just performing my role in administrative duties.”

When you were approached about being in this film were you yourself nervous or hesitant about revisiting this story?

No, no hesitations. I’ve been interviewed off and on, occasionally a reporter would track me down over these many years. But I was surprised at the request to fly out to Los Angeles and do a personal interview with Kirk and Tom. But I knew I’d get to meet Tony and Richard and that was a real driving force. It brought up a lot of things. Seeing what their life was like after they got that marriage license, it brought things back full circle for me. And so I wouldn’t have missed the opportunity in the world. It was not a real comfortable thing for me to be interviewed and be on screen, but I was glad for the opportunity.

Tony and Richard's marriage license, state of Colorado, 1975

In the years after you first signed their certificate did you think about them?

Yes, I always did wonder about the couples. Tony and Richard were the only couple that I’d ever seen any subsequent news reports on, just occasionally. I’d seen a news report about the infamous “faggot” letter, for instance, that was so many years ago. And then nothing for a long period of time, so I did always wonder what had happened.

You had a lot of backlash yourself after the marriage license approval in Boulder. Did you feel this would be historic at that moment?

No. I knew it would be viewed as an unusual and conflicting decision for many, but not to the degree of the backlash. I was pretty naive. The intensity of the hate that emerged took me by surprise. I got one note that was written on a doily! Which said I was going to create a Sodom and Gomorrah and so forth.

And what inspired you to want to be a part of the discussion connected to this film, beyond appearing in it?

That decision circumscribed my life in many other ways. As I matured, and my own sense of social justice became clearer to me as time went on. Not just for LGBT rights, I knew very little about that to be honest. I was a feminist, so any social justice issue was important to me. About 30 years in is when I finally began to become more a part of the LGBT community. I’ve grown into that, my participation as an activist ally. I have a little bit of a platform occasionally and believe so deeply in non-discrimination issues, and I’ll continue after this film, that any time I can I will speak up about the issues that are going to continue long after the Supreme Court decision comes down.

I do have friends in the gay community who are concerned about what will happen [even if SCOTUS rules in favor of gay marriage]: “will we lose attention to other issues, for our trans youth, our youth in general, employment discrimination, will funding and donations dry up, will people view the SCOTUS decision as the pinnacle victory?” It doesn’t mean the battle has come to an end. So I want to continue when I can.

Connected to that, I know that recently the current Boulder County Clerk has been issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Yes, and I just presented her an award the other day. At Boulder four years ago we created an award called the Clela Rorex Allies in Action Award. I got the first one! And then every year now they present the award to an ally. Hillary Hall is the current county clerk, and a year ago when I was in SF for the Castro Theater viewing, right at that moment she began issuing marriage licenses and it was announced from the stage. So Colorado went through this basically about a year ago, with our attorney general [John Suthers] shutting it down for awhile. When I presented Hall the award the other day I said, “this really does bring the issue of marriage equality full circle in Boulder, Colorado, what started so long ago.”

[Tony re-joins the conversation]

Tony: If Clela hadn’t done what she did, Richard and I were going to fight the issue through other means, but we may not have even gone a fraction of the way we got with the marriage license. If she hadn’t done what she had, we may not even have this Supreme Court decision coming down.  She’s a very important person, a major hero. There’s a series of heroes that come along before Richard and I, but on the issue of marriage equality, [to Clela] even though you didn’t know it at the time [laughs], you lit the fuse. And that is quite wonderful.

You were so young, you look at those photos — my favorite thing about Clela from back then is her car license plate. “Ms.” was a big, serious issue in those days.

County Clerk Clela Rorex's Ms1 license plate in Colorado, 1970s

Clela: It was a very serious thing. You wouldn’t think that now, but that was a big stance we took.

Tony: The important thing for our community is, on what Clela was saying, is to pick up on the erosion of women’s rights meanwhile, the restriction of freedom of choice in state after state, the attempt to take away contraceptives… I remember walking in Westwood in LA in the 1970s, for a protest for equal pay, and that still hasn’t been achieved. So our community has to start thinking of coalitions and alliances with these other groups, as we’re losing ground in other ways, here, there and everywhere, we need to start talking coalition politics. We should never be afraid, we should always look for new ways to jump ahead. Sorry about that [laughs], I got on my soapbox.

Learn more about Limited Partnership on Independent Lens >>