Boulder County Clerk and Recorder Hillary Hall continues to defy legal threats and issue same-sex marriage licenses -- just as Boulder County Clerk and Recorder Clela Rorex did four decades ago. In his documentary Limited Partnership, the closing night film at this year's Cinema Q film festival, filmmaker Tom Miller follows the forty-year relationship of a couple Rorex married. Using a wealth of archival footage, the film shows how the ban on same-sex marriage and immigration law have impacted the lives of Filipino-American Richard Adams and Australian immigrant Tony Sullivan. In advance of the July 27 program, Westword spoke with Miller about his movie, the equal rights marriage debate and the couple's fight to have their marriage license honored by immigration services.
Westword: Talk about Limited Partnership
Tom Miller: The film is a forty-year love story about two gay men, Richard Adams and Tony Sullivan, who met in 1971. Richard is Filipino American and Tony is Australian. When they met in the '70s, there was no way that two gay people could stay together if one was from another country. In 1975, they heard there were some legal marriage licenses happening in Boulder, Colorado. Clela Rorex, the county clerk and recorder, was issuing marriage licenses; Tony and Richard's was one of them. One of the reasons they got married was so that Tony could get a green card based on being Richard's spouse. They applied to immigration. They got a letter back from Immigration Services saying they didn't believe in the marital relationship of two faggots. When they received that letter, they were just stunned. They ended up suing the federal government for equal marriage rights, which would include immigration rights. They were the first gay couple in U.S. history to ever sue the federal government for that.
The film follows them over a forty-year period as they fought with the government and struggled to stay together all the way through, until we completed filming in 2013.
Talk about your process? How did you connect with them?
I was from the Midwest. I moved to Los Angeles in the early '90s to go to film school. I fell in love with documentary there. I was a gay man, but I was in the closet. I was afraid to come out and be who I was. When I lived in Los Angeles, several of my gay friends were in relationships with men and some of the lesbians with women from other countries. I was realizing that they had no way to stay together.
Ultimately, the power of documentary is that you can tell a story with human faces and change hearts and minds. In 2001, I decided to make a film about these gay couples and their problems with immigration. Doing my research and talking to some other couples, I was introduced to Richard and Tony, who happened to be living in Los Angeles and had this incredible story. That's how I met them. I followed them for fourteen years as I was trying to tell their story.
How many couples were you looking at initially?
Four couples. When I met Richard and Tony, they had done this fight in the '70s and '80s and eventually had to leave the country. Given that their home and their family and their friends were all in America, Tony slipped back into the country with Richard and has been undocumented since the mid-'80s. They were a gay, bi-national couple, but they were living low, just living their life. It was fine with them to be the background and the backstory with where we started in the '70s, just as the gay movement was starting.
I was following three other couples as they were trying to figure out how to stay together, but several of the couples split up because of the pressure of immigration, and Richard and Tony had the best story. In the 2000s, the Bush administration came to power. I knew from what was going on in the country that laws might not be changed at that time, so I put the story away for several years. In 2007, my producing partner and I approached Tony at the point that California approved gay marriage. Then Prop 8 [a California ballot initiative that barred same-sex couples from marrying] was passed. That reunited their spirit and they became the main couple from that point on.
Read on for more from Tom Miller.
They defy the stereotypes of what an immigrant couple looks like in the United States. Can you speak to that and how you see their case relating to the broader picture of immigration struggle?
When people physically look at Richard and Tony, I imagine most people think that Richard, who is Filipino-American, was the immigrant, and that Tony, the blond-haired, blue-eyed, all-American-looking guy, was the American. But he wasn't. He defied the physical appearance of an immigrant many people often think about.
Tony was able to use that to his advantage when he came back into the country, because immigration officials were looking for people with darker skin and not blond-haired, blue-eyed people. I think he used some of that racism at the border to be able to come back into America in the '80s.
Richard and Tony, just like any other undocumented couple, face the same problems with work and no benefits for the undocumented partner. They fought the matter for forty years and it was never resolved to this day. I think a lot of undocumented immigrants have gone through exactly the same thing, whether they are gay or not. Talk about sifting through so much archival material. How did you dig it up? What was that like?
I felt like I was an archeologist as I was trying to find archival footage. Because Richard and Tony were the first same-sex couple to sue the federal government, their fight at the national level was often documented. The archives were very difficult to find.
When they met, the news stations were shooting on 16 mm film. It wasn't until the mid-'70s that they started shooting on videotape. The ability to preserve and archive the 16mm footage was extremely hard and most of it has been lost.
I worked with History Colorado for several years. I worked with Channel 9 news in Denver. They were very kind in making their archives accessible. They say the archives at History Colorado is still a work in process: You can look at video, and I hope soon you will be able to look at film, which will benefit other people to be able to look in the archives. The archives, and not just in Colorado but everywhere, are actually kind of a mess.
I was scrounging and researching for ten years to be able to find a lot of the footage. It was incredibly time consuming, but it was worth it, because you could see this couple over a forty-year period and what they were facing in society. You could watch them age through the film, so it really is an incredible journey.
It was exhilarating to find something new. I was going through footage of the gay and lesbian parades in the '70s, and there was Tony and Richard in a car driving down the street. It was like finding gold. It was so incredible. You'd just find them out of the blue. Talk about documenting them? What was it like to go through that process, particularly as Tony's aged and battled illness?
I think one of the things that attracted me to Richard and Tony, initially, was that they were like a role model, a positive role model, where as a gay man, you could see that it was possible to have a long relationship and you could endure many different types of challenges in your relationship and still be able to stay together. That was very inspiring to me and helped me work over fourteen years to tell their story. They were inspirations to me.
We would follow them, for ten years, sometimes two or three times a year. Marriage equality and immigration laws have been changing rapidly over the last four or five years, so we would follow them more. When you follow somebody for that long, you develop an attachment to them. They develop a trust in you.
Toward the end of our shooting, Richard got very sick. Because I had this relationship with them and because they trusted me, they enabled me to shoot with them and ask them some very difficult questions as we started to finish the film. You can feel the intimacy in the footage at that point in the story.
Read on for more from Tom Miller.
What was it like when Tony saw the film?
Just before we did picture lock, I showed Tony just to make sure that we didn't do anything egregious or that we got anything wrong. He watched the film and he cried. He turned to me after he finished watching it. He said, "I only have one word to say." He said, "Thank you." That was two words, actually.
He was very emotionally satisfied with how it portrayed both of them. When we showed it at the LA Film Festival, we brought him up and the audiences gave him a standing ovation. They have been very moved by the story. That's very gratifying. Talk about why this film is important now?
Marriage equality is not ensured in all fifty states. Only nineteen states and the District of Columbia have marriage equality. One of the hopes of this film is to be part of this final conversation, as almost every single district court in the country has a marriage equality case. They're all winning, but the idea is that this is going in front of the Supreme Court again this year and they are going to probably have to make a verdict on marriage equality, in June of 2015, which is when our film is coming out on Independent Lens on PBS.
That's one of my goals is to have this film be a part of the final conversation. The other thing is that Tony is still undocumented. My hope is that when people see the things that he went through for the last forty years, it will help get him his green card, because right now, he's an undocumented alien in this country.
How would that work?
Tony and Richard were married in Boulder County, in 1975. Many people feel those marriage licenses are still valid. At this point, for Tony to be able to become documented, the Immigration Service and the government would have to accept that Tony and Richard's marriage license is legal. Then, Tony would be eligible for both a green card based on his marriage, and he would be eligible for all the benefits that you would get from being a partner of an American citizen who passed away.
For all that to happen at this point, the 1975 marriage has to be ruled as valid. It's a possibility.
We don't know what will happen. Hillary Hall is giving out marriage licenses in Boulder just like Rorex did in 1975. The whole thing is repeating itself. It's amazing.
Many gay and lesbian people, as well as the general public, really have no knowledge of what people went through to get to where we are today with gay rights. My goal with this film is that people will watch this and they will see through the eyes of Richard and Tony as they are fighting to stay together.
I think it is a history lesson, without pounding it into the observer. You see what's happening in the background as you go through the decades and appreciate that this isn't a new thing. These pioneers laid the foundation to get to where we are today. Like Clela Rorex. Like Tony Sullivan. Like Richard Adams. Rorex, who lives in Colorado now, is like the mother of gay marriage. She's an ally. She's not gay or lesbian at all. She just believes in human rights.
The screening of Limited Partnership starts at 7:15 p.m. on Sunday, July 27 at the Sie FilmCenter; both Clela Rorex and Miller will be present. Tickets are $15 for non-members and $12 for members. Find more information here.
Find me on Twitter: @kyle_a_harris