Movie Review: Limited Partnership (2014)

LimitedPartnershipImageLimited Partnership is a documentary film about the relationship between Richard Adams, a Filipino American, and Tony Sullivan, an Australian.

Richard and Tony met in Los Angeles in 1971 when Tony was in the US on a tourist visa, during a stop while travelling around the world. They fell in love, and Tony decided to stay with Richard. Every three months he had to leave the United States and then re-enter, fearing that each time the Immigration Service would tell him he had visited too often. Then in 1975 a county clerk in Boulder, Colorado granted a marriage license to a same sex couple, after advice from the local county attorney that nothing in the state constitution forbade it. Tony and Richard flew to Boulder with their minister and friends, applied for a license, and were married there straight away.


Then they did what any married couple would do – they applied for a visa for the immigrant partner for permanent residency in the US. I’ve been through this process myself, and it’s not pleasant: it’s lengthy, fraught with bureaucratic delays, and deliberate unpleasantness to try to shake you or trip you up, or to try to make you reveal that you aren’t in a real relationship, and you’re just trying to get your grubby little mitts on that vaunted green card. Thanks to an accident of birth, I didn’t have to deal with what Richard and Tony did – they received a letter of rejection stating they “failed to establish that a bona fide marital relationship can exist between two faggots”.

Naturally, faced with Tony’s deportation, they sued the United States government, in a case known as Adams v Howerton. The general findings of the court was that even if the marriage were legal, Colorado does not control immigration, Congress does, and the court found that Congress had no intention to expand the definition of spouse to allow same sex spouses to immigrate. They went through appeal after appeal, until their case reached the United States Supreme Court – who refused to hear their case, leaving them with almost no options. They tried one last attempt – Tony Sullivan filed claiming that it would cause undue hardship to be deported, as unlike most deportees, he wouldn’t be able to take his nearest and dearest with him, as Adams could not immigrate to Australia to be with him (Sullivan v INS). This was decided against them in 1985 with Judge Kennedy (now on the Supreme Court) penning the majority decision.

Sullivan-Adams-BrownThe couple left the United States together, but had nowhere to go, as at that time no country recognised same sex marriage as a basis for immigration. They travelled together in Europe as tourists for a while on EuroRail passes, desperately poor, then returned to the United States. They met an American friend of theirs in Mexico, who helped Richard sneak Tony in at the border by playing on the border guards’ bigotry – he looked at the scruffy white guy in a baseball cap and just assumed he was American and waved them all through.

This time they went into hiding, with Tony living as an undocumented alien and getting poorly paid work under the table. Richard found work for a law firm, and the couple refrained from activism and kept their heads down, hoping not to be noticed. Around them, the AIDS epidemic struck down many of their dearest friends, including their immigration lawyer. Much later, as same sex marriage came into the political eye again (being approved in California, then struck down with Proposition 8), they started to speak out, always feeling that a target was on them, and that Tony might be taken away at any time.


As the marriage rights debate took increasingly positive turns, Richard’s health suffered a crippling blow – he was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. His health deteriorated rapidly as the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) case was heard in the Supreme Court, and their current immigration attorney advised them to go to Washington, which had recently approved same sex marriage, and re-marry there, in case a modern court didn’t consider that old marriage to be legally valid. They agreed, although it was painful for both of them to do so, but Richard died the next day.


Shortly thereafter, Justice Kennedy penned the majority decision striking down Section 3 of DOMA and allowing same sex marriages recognised by a state to be recognised for federal purposes – survivor benefits for social security, tax returns, and of course, immigration. Tony says that he doesn’t hold any bitterness towards Justice Kennedy, accepting that he has obviously changed, and we should also accept that others can change as well. Given the lengthy historical backdrop portrayed in this film, same-sex marriage is evidently something that Justice Kennedy has had a long time to think over, longer than most people are aware.

Their story is shockingly undertold – Wikipedia features a tiny page on Richard, another on the main court case, and has no information on Tony (FYI, he’s not the Australian Rules football player that rates a paragraph on there).

After the film, which I doubt left a dry eye in the house, there was a discussion panel, with Angie Williams, a local immigration lawyer, Doug Bonney, the legal director of the ACLU of Kansas, Dick Nelson, a local retired journalist with a story very similar to Richard and Tony’s, Lindsey Foat, a reporter for KCPT and The Hale Center for Journalism, and myself, Fiona Nowling, co-founder of Transas City , and an immigrant from the UK. Lindsey moderated a discussion of the film and a question and answer session from the audience, with many good points and interesting information. We all (panel and audience alike) stressed that as progress is made, backlashes tend to get made at smaller and smaller minorities, and that it is important to keep fighting for everyone’s sake under the LGBT umbrella. There was much discussion of intersections of discrimination, partly provoked by the episode of Tony sneaking into the US – if Richard had had to sneak in, things might have been harder. One person there announced some upcoming discussions on that which are sponsored by the Kansas City Anti-Violence Project, so look for a separate post with more details.

Coincidentally, while I was on that panel, a friend who married her wife recently in Kansas, on a legally valid Kansas wedding license, was posting on Facebook about her experience being turned down by the Kansas DMV when she attempted to change her name on her driver’s license to her wife’s name. “It’s not legal,” she was told.

At the end of the film, it was announced that Tony has filed a widower’s petition to be allowed to remain legally in the US, which is still under consideration. Since the film was made, he has written to the President, demanding an apology for how he and Richard were treated, and he has received a letter of apology from the director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the successor to the INS. He has also received a work permit, despite the fact that the outcome of his petition for residency is still pending. So there definitely is hope.

I strongly recommend anyone interested in LGBT rights or immigration reform see this film, and it will air on KCPT on June 15th at 9 P.M. Central time. I also recommend having tissues handy.

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