In 1975, Boulder County, Colo., clerk Clela Rorex issued the first same-sex marriage licenses in the United States. In this excerpt from the documentary "Limited Partnership," Rorex describes what led her to make the decision and reunites decades later with one of the couples, Richard Adams and Anthony Sullivan. The full documentary airs on PBS's "Independent Lens" on June 15, 2015. (Independent Television Service)

“I’ve got the license and the faggot letter if you want to look at them,” Anthony Sullivan said cheerfully.

It’s a glorious California day, sunny and breezy, and a wind chime clangs relentlessly outside the vine-covered apartment building where dancer Ann Miller once scuffed the hardwood floors and the Hollywood Ten met in the basement.

Sullivan, 73, who manages the place, always has the documents handy.

The license shows that Anthony Corbett Sullivan and Richard Frank Adams were married April 21, 1975, in Boulder, Colo., years before others thought two men should be allowed to wed and decades before a majority of Americans would say it was okay with them, too.

The letter is the official response from the U.S. government after Adams informed officials of his nuptials and asked that his new husband, an Australian citizen facing deportation, be extended a spouse’s visa.

Anthony Sullivan poses for a portrait at his home on April 11, 2015, in Los Angeles, Calif. (Bret Hartman/For The Washington Post)

Denied, the immigration service said, for the following reason:

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

The denial sparked a first-of-its-kind lawsuit, and the eventual “exile” of the two men.

All of this — the groundbreaking marriage, the profane government response, the first case asking a federal court to recognize a same-sex marriage — would be enough to make the 41-year romance of Sullivan and Adams, who died in 2012, remarkable.

But there is one more twist, and it makes their story especially compelling as the Supreme Court considers this month whether same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry.

The judge who wrote the final word on whether Sullivan and Adams could stay together in the United States or be forced to strike out in search of a country that would take them was Anthony M. Kennedy, then a circuit judge and now the Supreme Court’s pivotal justice on gay rights.

The cut-and-dried ruling against Sullivan gave no hint that Kennedy would one day author the Supreme Court’s most important decisions on the subject: a protection of gay citizens in Romer v. Evans (1996); the abolition of anti-homosexual sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas (2003) and United States v. Windsor, which two years ago struck down the key part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

Anthony Sullivan and Richard Adams were married in Boulder, Colo., in 1975. (Bret Hartman/For The Washington Post)

But in 1985, it was Kennedy’s ruling — not about the government’s ugly language, but about whether immigration officials eventually were justified in their decision to deport Sullivan — that led Adams and Sullivan to board a TWA flight to London.

Sullivan would never have guessed that Kennedy would become the Supreme Court’s leader on gay rights, but he doesn’t criticize the justice for the decision in his case.

“In my mind, he was just doing his job,” Sullivan said.

Besides, it was a long time ago. “And I put myself — we put ourselves — in that situation.”

***

Sullivan and Adams met on Cinco de Mayo 1971 at a gay bar called the Closet in downtown Los Angeles. They made plans to meet the next day at Greta Garbo’s Hollywood Walk of Fame star on Hollywood Boulevard, and they were pretty much together for the next 41 years.

“I never met another person I fitted so well with,” says Sullivan. “Not to get sloppy, but he meant everything to me, and I meant everything to him.”

But there was a problem bigger than being openly gay in 1971. Although Adams was a naturalized citizen — his Filipino mother married an American when Adams was 12, and they moved to the United States — Sullivan was Australian. He was on a world tour when he first landed in Los Angeles on a tourist visa.

For a time, Sullivan dealt with the immigration problem by occasionally decamping to Mexico and then reentering the country. But the Immigration and Naturalization Service caught on, and Sullivan needed a different strategy for staying in the country permanently.

He married a female friend who offered. But when he met with an immigration official who asked about the consummation of the marriage and when they had last had sex, he told him the truth. Marriages of convenience were common in Australia, he said, and he had no idea that it would not be accepted in the United States.

Sullivan was turned down, the marriage was annulled and the couple looked for a new solution.

They saw a story in the Advocate about a woman named Clela Rorex, a young feminist county clerk in Boulder, Colo. One day not long after she took office, a gay couple asked whether they could marry. She checked the law and didn’t see anything that said they couldn’t. She asked a county attorney, and he couldn’t find anything, either.

“I didn’t even know anyone from the gay and lesbian community,” Rorex said in a recent interview. “I had no exposure to homosexuals.” But as someone sensitive to discrimination against women, she said she sensed the same unfairness.

So on March 27, 1975, she issued a license to Dave McCord and Dave Zamora. There followed hate mail and death threats and warnings that Rorex was turning Boulder, a liberal college town, into a modern Sodom and Gomorrah.

And in the most famous story from that time, she looked out her window one day and saw a man pulling up with a horse trailer and followed by a group of reporters.

She knew what was coming. As Rorex recounts in a documentary made about Sullivan and Adams called “Limited Partnership,” a man came in and said, “If a man can marry a man and a woman can marry a woman, why can’t a tired old cowboy marry his best friend?” Who happened to be a horse named Dolly.

But Rorex had prepared. She asked how old Dolly was, and when the man answered that she was 8, “I laid down my pen and said: ‘I’m sorry. Dolly’s underaged.’ ”

That story stood out among the headlines such as “He Marries Lover . . . Another Man,” and Johnny Carson mentioned it in a “Tonight Show” monologue. Adams and Sullivan were watching, and thought that if Rorex hadn’t been shut down by now, maybe they should try it.

They went to Boulder, got a license and were married that day in a gay-friendly church. Remembering the question from the immigration official, they immediately went to the guest room of a friend’s house and later told reporters they had consummated their marriage.

Six months later, after Adams had applied for the spouse’s visa, the letter came from immigration officials.

Sullivan opened it and couldn’t believe what he was reading. He handed it to Adams and said, “This is your government.”

Today, he regrets saying that. “I’ll give America credit on this, if Richard and I had done what we did in another country, we wouldn’t have even gotten the hearing. At least here in America, we got the hearing.”

***

Their lawsuit was widely covered in Los Angeles, with headlines about the “Australian ‘wife’ ” and ever-present quotation marks surrounding the word “marriage.” But Sullivan welcomed the attention.

“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 said. “And I think one of the reasons the press decided to be nice to us was because we were so honest.”

At their first news conference, before a battery of microphones, Sullivan said a reporter asked him, “Oh, and what is it that either of you do in bed?”

“Instead of getting offended, I said, ‘Well, if you tell me what you and your wife do in bed, I’ll be happy to tell you what we do in bed.’ The whole room broke up.”

Not so supportive, Sullivan said, were some in the gay rights movement. Some thought there was no way to win a lawsuit about marriage at that time; others said the emphasis should be about sexual freedom, Sullivan said. One leader told him, “This revolution is not about relationships.”

At least part of the analysis was correct. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that, even assuming Sullivan and Adams were lawfully married in Colorado, Congress had control over immigration matters and had shown no intention of expanding the term spouse beyond its usual definition of a marriage of a man and a woman. The Supreme Court declined to review the ruling.

The couple tried again, this time with Sullivan as the plaintiff. He challenged a finding of the Board of Immigration Appeals that his pending deportation qualified for an exemption as an extreme hardship.

Kennedy was on a panel of three 9th Circuit judges hearing the case. He noted that Sullivan’s arguments that ending his relationship with Adams would “cause him personal anguish and hurt” and that his deportation to Australia would be an undue hardship “because homosexuals are not accepted in that society and because the members of his own family who live in Australia have turned against him.”

But Kennedy concluded, “Even if all of Sullivan’s arguments are accepted at face value, they do not necessarily constitute a showing of extreme hardship as the term is defined in the immigration laws.” He added, “Deportation rarely occurs without personal distress and emotional hurt.”

A dissenting judge said that this case was different: “Most deported aliens can return to their native lands with their closest companions. But Sullivan would be precluded from doing so because Adams allegedly would not be permitted to emigrate to Australia.”

That marked the end of their legal battle. Rather than separate, the two left for Europe, and they lived for a time in Northern Ireland. But they realized that the United States had become home, and that Adams’s family here was the only family they had.

So one day Sullivan flew to Mexico, where a friend had driven to pick him up. He put on a ballcap, and they headed for the border, where a guard stopped them and looked inside the car. Everyone in here an American? he asked. He answered his own question and waved them through.

Sullivan and Adams reunited in Los Angeles and quietly resumed their life together, this time in what Sullivan called the “immigration closet.”

***

All those years, Sullivan worked as the building manager and paid his taxes, and the government never showed up at his door.

The world changed for same-sex couples, and Kennedy’s rulings at the Supreme Court were part of that. Sullivan was surprised. “He was a Ronald Reagan appointee, wasn’t he?” he said.

“When someone moves, ­changes, we should be pleased. Once he did the pro-gay decision on the sodomy case all those years ago, I have fantasized that maybe he got a little bit of a lesson from our trial. I like to think that was so, but maybe he didn’t.”

Rorex wonders, too. She issued licenses for six couples before the lawyers made her stop; Sullivan and Adams were the ones she kept up with. The negative reaction from the community never subsided. She married a man and moved away from Boulder before her term in office was up.

She has since returned to the area and is active in supporting gay rights issues. The Supreme Court’s coming decision on same-sex marriage has made her think again about Kennedy.

“Now that he’s the swing vote again on this issue, it’s just amazing,” she said. “I’m so curious if [Sullivan’s case] is something that ever crosses his mind.”

Kennedy declined to be interviewed for this article.

As the issue of same-sex marriage moved forward, Sullivan and Adams became more outspoken about their story, even though Sullivan’s immigration status remains unsettled. As same-sex marriage became available in various states, Sullivan’s attorney, Lavi Soloway, suggested that Adams and Sullivan take advantage. They resisted.

“Richard and I have never budged on the concept that the Boulder marriage was legitimate — it’s still in the books,” Sullivan said.

But in December 2012, with Adams dying of cancer, Soloway made another attempt. He advised them to go to Washington state, which had recently approved same-sex unions. Filmmaker Thomas G. Miller recorded the scene as the two men reluctantly agreed; Sullivan said they would think of it as a renewal of their vows rather than a wedding. Then, not remembering he was wearing a microphone, Sullivan went into another room and sobbed.

The wedding never took place. Adams died the next day.

But one day, Sullivan received a work permit. And another day, a letter arrived from the government.

In the changing climate of the federal government’s view of same-sex marriage and treatment of same-sex couples, Sullivan had written to President Obama.

“I requested, basically for Richard, an apology for the faggot letter, because I felt that as an American citizen, he didn’t deserve to have that on his record,” Sullivan said. “Because he loved his country.”

The response came from León Rodriguez, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the successor to the INS.

“This agency should never treat any individual with the disrespect shown toward you and Mr. ­Adams,” 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.”

Soloway said Sullivan now has a widower’s petition pending before the agency.

Sullivan and Miller will be in Washington this week to show their film at Filmfest DC and will remain for the Supreme Court’s consideration of same-sex marriage April 28.

But Sullivan said he is not the perfect advocate for same-sex marriage — he’s not convinced that government should be in the marriage business at all. Perhaps marriage should be left to churches, he said, and the government could come up with some other way to validate relationships.

A few days after the interview, Sullivan followed up with an e-mail. If the question was whether he and Adams felt coerced to marry, he said, the answer was “a qualified yes.”

“If marriage had not been the vehicle by which the state dispenses rights, favors and benefits to couples, would we have gotten legally married? I don’t know,” he wrote.

“Our relationship was real. The spiritual aspect of marriage applied to us. We loved each other and wanted to stay together.”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.