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Time Travel over Some Pretty Ugly Terrain
June 13, 2015  | By Tom Brinkmoeller

Many heroes aren't immediate, as Independent Lens, "Limited Partnership" airing June 15 10PM ET on PBS, will point out (10 p.m., check local listings).

This is the story of two men. One (Tony Sullivan) who, when he was on a trip from his home in Australia in the early '70s, met an American named Richard Adams (below, with Sullivan) in Los Angeles. They fell in love and spent four decades fighting U.S. immigration laws that didn't recognize gay relationships and under the constant threat that Tony would be deported. Richard couldn't leave with him because Australia had similar laws.

Some heroes cross the finish line in record time and are given a medal. The long, heroic path for others redefines the word "marathon."

More than four decades ago, few were interested in this kind of dilemma. Many of us still surrounded our minds with fences that kept out any but the worst depictions of gays and lesbians. Many of us didn't want to deal with the facts that now are so much more universally accepted: That same-sex relationships aren't abnormal or perverse and not the business of governments to regulate.

The story of these two amazingly dedicated and determined men to stay together is clearly told in this hour-long documentary. It begins shortly before they were married (legally, during a brief period) in Colorado; continues through a letter from immigration authorities that denied Tony residency, that called the two "faggots"; through attempts to reverse that call in courts; through a self-exile where they wandered in Europe in 1985; through a risky return to the U.S. at a Mexican border station, and right on into and out of the Defense of Marriage legislation and its defeat in the U.S. Supreme Court. 

This is a story about love and dedication. Even for people who started adjusting their thinking many years ago about such issues, it can be a revelation, a story of love between two people lasting through oppressively difficult years of losing battles. It is as reaffirming as it is sad.

Thomas G. Miller (right), the film's producer and director, worked on it for more than 10 years. He tells of a conversation with a man he describes as "a conservative Republican" following a recent screening. The man told him, "I finally understand what you're talking about. It's just about being in love."

During a telephone conversation, Miller said he became aware of the problem of same-sex relationships facing government obstacles "when I moved to L.A. in the early '90s. Many of my gay and lesbian friends were in relationships with people from other countries." All, he added, were trying to deal with immigration rules that didn't allow them to stay together.

The idea of making a film about the problems developed in his head and the long process of completing it started in 2001. He had his first meeting with Richard and Tony the following year. The film is made better through its extensive use of archival news and personal films. Finding it was a major research effort.

"My crew and I spent months doing it over the years," he said, "working other films" in the interim "to pay for this one."

Where archival footage left off, Miller added new with many interviews of Richard and Tony, both of who age almost dramatically over the four decades. When Richard is diagnosed with advanced lung cancer, the story goes to another dramatic level. In the final filmed interview of the two, in which they meet with their lawyer in their home, Richard appears to be seriously ill and Tony is emotionally drained. After the filming ended, Miller said he and Tony talked privately, and that conversation led to a peaceful turn.

"I said, 'Tony, I have to tell you that I'm going to Ohio for Christmas. I'm not sure I'll see Richard when I come back.' "

After Miller left, Tony told Richard about the conversation. "They talked about everything," Tony later told Miller. Then Richard privately meditated and shortly after that he died.

Tony remains an undocumented alien living in the United States. He is awaiting a Green Card hearing, Miller said, on the basis of being the spouse of a deceased American citizen. The outcome of that, he pointed out, will almost surely be affected by the upcoming decision of the U.S. Supreme Court on gay marriages.

"Limited Partnership" is a sad and frustrating story that would be much tougher if it weren't for its hopeful overtones: Seeing civilization's advances over a four-decade period is more than a glimmer that people are trying more than ever to understand and respect each other.

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