Remembering Richard Adams, Filipino-American Gay Rights Activist
History is filled with brave men and women who challenged norms and stood up to bigotry and hate. One of them is Richard Adams, a Filipino-American activist who, together with his partner, was one of the first-ever same-sex couples granted a marriage license in the U.S. He spent the rest of his life fighting for that marriage to be recognized. He died on this day (December 17) in 2012 and it’s only right we look back and pay tribute to his extraordinary life.
The life of Richard Adams
Richard Frank Salanga was born in Manila on March 9, 1947. Together with his family, he immigrated to the U.S. when he was 12 years old and settled in Minnesota. He later adopted the surname of his stepfather and was henceforth known as Richard Adams. He studied at the University of Minnesota and, in 1968, became a naturalized American citizen.
Adams later moved to Los Angeles, California where he worked as an agent for car rental company Avis. It was in 1971, during a Cinco De Mayo event at a gay bar called Closet, when he met Anthony Sullivan. The two eventually fell in love and began a relationship. However, Sullivan was an Australian who was in the U.S. on a tourist visa. There was no way for him to remain in the U.S. and be with Adams. Unless the two got married.
But this was the middle of the 1970s. It was decades before the U.S. or any other country in the world had explicit laws that gave same-sex couples the right to get married and enjoy the same privileges as straight couples.
The couple then heard about a clerk in Boulder, Colorado who had issued a marriage license to two men after she consulted a local district attorney. She reasoned that there was actually no law that prevented her from issuing the license to two men. And so she did.
Getting married in Boulder
Adams and Sullivan traveled to Colorado and got married in Boulder County on April 21, 1975. They were one of the first six same-sex couples that were issued a marriage license in the country.
As one could imagine, the news that half a dozen same-sex couples were issued marriage licenses sparked an uproar not just in Colorado but across the U.S. According to the New York Times, Boulder County stopped issuing the licenses almost immediately soon after.
Meanwhile, with marriage license in hand, Adams and Sullivan filed a petition with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS)—the agency whose main functions have since been split among today’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)—seeking permanent residency for Sullivan because he was the spouse of a U.S. citizen.
The couple received an extremely offensive reply from the INS, which no doubt fueled their desire to fight for gay rights: “You have failed to establish that a bona fide marital relationship can exist between two faggots,” the reply read.
The INS later sent a revised letter, insisting that “[a] marriage between two males is invalid for immigration purposes and cannot be considered a bona fide marital relationship since neither party to the marriage can perform the female functions in marriage.”
After their petition was ultimately denied, the couple sued the INS, claiming that their marriage was valid both in Colorado and immigration law. But a federal judge in Los Angeles upheld the decision of the INS.
With options limited, Sullivan filed an appeal that sought to stop the impending deportation, claiming that it would cause him “extreme hardship.” But a court ultimately denied that petition as well.
By that point, the couple and their case were all over the news. There were constant interviews and the case was discussed on late night talk shows.
“My belief was if the press knew what we were doing—if we got in the press and stayed in the press—that gave us a measure of safety from the government,” Sullivan told The Washington Post. “And I think one of the reasons the press decided to be nice to us was because we were so honest.”
As an alternative, Adams attempted to apply for residency in Australia instead, but that, too was rejected by the Australian government. So, in 1985, they left the U.S. and traveled around Europe for a year.
The couple returned to the U.S. via Mexico in 1986. For a time, they lived quietly, with Adams finding work as an administrative assistant at a law firm while Sullivan worked as a building manager as an undocumented immigrant. Eventually, the couple began making appearances at public events and advocating for equal rights for same-sex couples.
As the '90s and the 2000s rolled around, same-sex marriage began to pick up support across the U.S., with Massachusetts becoming the first state to legalize it in 2004. According to the Post, the couple’s attorney asked them if they wanted to take advantage of the changing attitudes about the issue to finally, unequivocally, get married. But they refused.
“Richard and I have never budged on the concept that the Boulder marriage was legitimate—it’s still in the books,” Sullivan told the Post.
But in December 2012, Adams was battling cancer, and the attorney advised them to go up to Washington State and get married there. The couple reluctantly agreed. They made the trip with a filmmaker, who was supposed to capture the moment.
Sadly, the wedding never happened as Adams passed away the very next day.
A long-delayed apology
In the days and weeks after Adams’ death, Sullivan received a work permit from the government, and, afterwards, a letter from the CIS. He had written to then-President Barack Obama asking for a formal apology for the “faggot” letter. It was the director of the CIS who responded.
“This agency should never treat any individual with the disrespect shown toward you and Mr. Adams,” the director, Leon Rodriguez, wrote. “You have my sincerest apology for the years of hurt caused by the deeply offensive and hateful language used in the November 24, 1975, decision and my deepest condolences on your loss.”
Sullivan later requested the formal acknowledgment that his marriage to Adams was legitimate, which the U.S. government granted. He also finally got his Green card, which came 45 years since his wedding to Adams in Boulder. Sullivan himself passed away in November 2020, eight years after his beloved Richard. Their story has since been told in a documentary entitled Limited Partnership.
If you or someone you know is a member of the LGBT community, spare a thought for Adams and Sullivan, who showed the world the power of love, no matter your gender or sexual orientation.