In this May 10, 1984 photo, Richard Adams, left, and Anthony Sullivan appear at a news conference. They were facing the deportation of Sullivan to Austrialia. (AP)

Richard Adams made history when he and his partner of four years, Anthony Sullivan, became one of the first gay couples in the country to be granted a marriage license. It happened in Boulder, Colo., where a county clerk issued licenses to six same-sex couples in the spring of 1975.

Mr. Adams hoped to use his marriage to secure permanent residency in the United States for Sullivan, an Australian who had been in the country on a limited visa and was facing deportation.

But Colorado’s attorney general declared the Boulder marriages invalid. Several months later, Mr. Adams and Sullivan received a letter from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service that denied Sullivan’s petition for resident status in terms that left no doubt about the reason:

“You have failed to establish that a bona fide marital relationship can exist between two faggots,” the notification read.

Mr. Adams, who later filed the first federal lawsuit demanding recognition of same-sex marriages, died Dec. 17 at his home in Hollywood, Calif., said his attorney, Lavi Soloway. He was 65. The cause of death was not disclosed.

Soloway described Mr. Adams and Sullivan as “pioneers who stood up and fought for something nobody at that time conceived of as a right: the right of gay couples to be married.”

“Attitudes at the time were not supportive, to put it mildly,” Soloway said. “They went on the [Phil] Donahue show, and people in the audience said some pretty nasty things. But they withstood it all because they felt it was important to speak out.”

Born in Manila on March 9, 1947, Mr. Adams immigrated to the United States with his family when he was 12. He grew up in Long Prairie, Minn., studied liberal arts at the University of Minnesota and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1968.

By 1971, he was working in Los Angeles, where he met Sullivan. Four years later, the two men heard about Boulder County Clerk Clela Rorex, who had decided to issue marriage licenses to gay couples after the Boulder district attorney’s office told her that nothing in state law explicitly prohibited it.

On April 21, 1975, Mr. Adams and Sullivan obtained their license and exchanged marriage vows at a Unitarian church.

The Boulder marriages attracted national media attention. Rorex received obscene phone calls and even a visit from a cowboy who protested by demanding to marry his horse. (Rorex said she turned him down because the mare, 8 years old, was under age.)

After their marriage, Mr. Adams and Sullivan filed a petition with the INS seeking permanent residency for Sullivan as the spouse of a U.S. citizen. In November 1975, they received the immigration agency’s derogatory letter and lodged a formal protest. Officials reissued the denial notice without the derisive language.

Mr. Adams and Sullivan took the agency to court in 1979, challenging the constitutionality of the denial. A federal district judge in Los Angeles upheld the INS decision, and Mr. Adams and Sullivan lost subsequent appeals.

In a second lawsuit, the couple argued that Sullivan’s deportation after an eight-year relationship with Mr. Adams would constitute an “extreme hardship.” In 1985, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit rejected the hardship argument and opened the way for Sullivan to be sent back to Australia.

Because Australia had already turned down Mr. Adams’s request for residency, the couple decided the only way they could stay together was to leave the United States. They flew to Britain in 1985 and drifted through Europe.

“It was the most difficult period because I had to leave my family as well as give up my job of 181 / 2 years,” Mr. Adams said in “Limited Partnership,” a documentary scheduled for release next year.

They ended their self-imposed exile after a year and lived quietly in Los Angeles to avoid drawing the attention of immigration officials, but in recent years they began to appear at rallies supporting same-sex marriage, Soloway said.

They were encouraged by new guidelines issued by the Obama administration this fall that instructed immigration officials to stop deporting foreigners in long-standing same-sex relationships with U.S. citizens.

Although the policy change came more than three decades after Mr. Adams and Sullivan raised the issue, it gave Mr. Adams “a sense of vindication,” Soloway said.

Mr. Adams, who was an administrator for a law firm until his retirement in 2010, is survived by Sullivan; his mother; four sisters; and a brother.

— Los Angeles Times