DOMA and Prop 8 Activist Richard Adams Dies: Loss of a True Gay Rights Pioneer


Next spring, the United State Supreme Court will hear two cases which may decide the fate of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and the quest for equal rights for same sex marriage couples. “The court will hear a challenge to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision that California’s Proposition 8 is unconstitutional.” The second case Windsor v. United States, will determine if same sex marriage couples are entitled to the same legal status and pursuant rights and benefits as opposite sex unions.

The two cases were born in the 21st century, 2008 and 2010 respectively, but the fight for equal right for same sex couples began 40 years ago with Richard Adams.

Richard Adams a true pioneer for same sex marriage passed away on Dec 17 at the age of 65. Adams and his partner of 43 years, Tony Sullivan, met in 1971 and were granted a marriage license in 1975. Their license was issued by Boulder, Colorado county clerk Clela Rorex. Rorex had discovered that there was nothing in Colorado law that expressly forbade same sex marriage. After confirming her understanding with the district attorney’s office, she began issuing licenses. Adams and Sullivan were among the first six couples to receive a license. The state attorney general eventually ordered Rorex to cease issuing the licenses, but not before Adams and Sullivan were married at the First Unitarian Church of Denver.

Adams and Sullivan had hoped that their marriage would secure permanent U.S. residency status for Sullivan, but like so many same sex couples, they found out that their marriage had no standing in federal court and therefore they were not entitled to the same benefits as opposite sex couples. They received a terse rejection letter that said “you have failed to establish that a bona fide marital relationship can exist between two faggots.” In 1979, Adams filed a lawsuit against the Immigration and Naturalization service and that began a lifelong pursuit for equal right for same sex marriage couples.

Adams' fight which began in 1975 continues today. Despite polls indicating that the public is more supportive of same sex marriage, same sex couples still face an upheld battle to secure the same benefits Adams was fighting for 40 years ago. In Montana, for example, the state Supreme Court recently ruled 4-3 against same sex marriage. The state Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that denied same sex couples the same benefits as opposite sex couples, in essence upholding the state's marriage amendment. The 2004 voter-approved amendment defines marriage as being between a man and woman. The Washington Post explained that the ruling effectively denies the following from same sex couples :

- Inheritance rights and the ability to make burial decisions and receive workers compensation death benefits.

Same sex couples received another blow when The New York Daily News reported “Pope Benedict used his annual Christmas message to denounce gay marriage, saying that it destroyed the ‘essence of the human creature.’” The paper noted that the Pope found “gender identity is God-given and unchangeable” and therefore same-sex marriage is a “manipulation of nature.” The Independent pointed out that the Pontiff referenced “a study by the Chief Rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim, who said the campaign for granting gays the right to marry and adopt children was an ‘attack’ on the traditional family.” Rabbi Gilles-Bernheim has been a leading religious figure that opposes same sex marriage. The Hurriyet Daily News reported that the Rabbi sent an “open letter to [French] government and lawmakers” saying that “the argument that marriage is for all of those in love does not hold.”

Adams never stopped fighting for equal rights for same sex marriage couples. At the time of his death, he was working on a “challenge to the federal Defense of Marriage Act, one of two gay-marriage laws the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear in its upcoming term.” The two cases would have impacted him directly. One case will address California Prop 8 which would allow Adams and Sullivan to be legally married in their home state, and the other would prevent the federal government from denying federal benefits to same sex couple in states that allow same sex unions.

Adams died knowing that the fight to grant same sex couples the same privileges and benefits afforded opposite sex couples was beginning to show results despite the views of the world’s religious leaders. In November 2012, Washington, Maryland, and Maine became the first states to have same sex legislation approved by popular vote. Minnesota voters rejected a state constitutional amendment similar to the one just upheld by the Montana state supreme court. There are now nine states that allow same sex marriage.

In the 1980’s, Adams and Sullivan became brief celebrities for the cause when they appeared on several talk shows including the Today show and The Phil Donahue Show. They brought national attention to the issue of equal rights for same sex marriage couples. Their story will be told in an upcoming documentary, “Limited Partnership.” But the their story will not be complete until the Supreme Court rules the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and grants equal right to all benefits for same sex couples.