As Mrs. LanceAround and I prepare to sit down with Tony Sullivan for a quick interview, we are interrupted by a woman who asks us to keep her identity anonymous. She turns to Tony and says:
“This may be my only chance. This is one of the things about the Florida Film Festival [To LanceAround] You had said he’s similar to Rosa Parks? [She turns her attention back to Tony] I feel like I’m in the presence of someone just like her; someone who made a contribution that I very much admire and I thank you so much! I’m so touched. I cried. I’m so grateful there are people as courageous as you who have done the things you have done. You inspire me.”
“Thank you. I appreciate that,” responds Tony, “but really we were only doing what came naturally to us. The thing that made it easier is we had each other. When chaos was going on around us, we were basically just focused on each other. So, in a strange way, we were selfish because we couldn’t be separated. We didn’t see ourselves as being particularly courageous.”
During the course of the interruption, the anonymous woman is standing and Tony, being the consummate gentleman, absolutely refuses to sit down until she departs.
Very seldom do people realize that history is being made at the very moment in time it is being made. The documentary Mrs. LanceAround and I just saw was Limited Partnership. It tells the story of Tony and his partner Richard, who were living in California in 1975 when they heard Boulder Colorado was issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples. They went to Boulder and were legally married. Tony then became the first person in the United States to apply for a Green Card on the basis of being married–to another man!
The response from the government to Tony’s request for a Green Card came in the form of a letter that said, in part, “You have failed to establish that a bona fide marital relationship can exist between two faggots!”
Tony, ever the optimist, quickly goes on to say, “Which, by the way, was a gift–it gave us something to fight with!” That, alone, tells you something of this remarkable man’s character.
The federal government, probably recognizing that the letter was a tactless error, quickly follows up with another letter that Tony felt was even more offensive, “It said one of us couldn’t fulfill the female duties and obligations inherent in the marital situation.” He goes on to explain why this was more offensive, “Anyone who knows anything about what women have to deal with and what feminism stands for, has to say that was actually far, far more offensive than the ‘faggot letter’. It was manifesting an ingrained philosophical viewpoint within the society.”
I ask Tony if he’s aware of the significance of his role in history.
“I’m becoming aware of it,” he responds. “It’s sort of thrust on me. I’m just another person and yet life took just another person and put them in circumstances that created what it has created.”
“I’d like to challenge you on that,” I reply. “Based on research that you’ve seen, what percentage of the population is gay?”
“Probably 10%,” he responds.
“Do you know the population of the country in 1975?” I ask.
“250 million?” Tony guesses. [I Google this and he’s not far off, it is estimated at 216 million.]
“So that would mean 25 million people are gay. What percentage of gay people are in committed relationships, approximately?” I inquire further.
“probably about two or three percent.” He guesses.
“So you’re looking at 500,000 to 750,000 gays in a committed relationship in 1975,” I point out. “And probably, because of the nature of their relationship, a large percentage of those people were aware of the marriages taking place in Boulder, CO…”
“I see where you’re going with this…” Tony muses.
“Now, out of those several hundred thousand committed gay couples, how many took the trip to Boulder, CO, like you did, to get married?”
“Six,” he replies.
“And you were one of them?” I drive my point home.
“So the next time you’re tempted to say, ‘I’m just an ordinary person who was doing an ordinary thing.’ I’d like you to keep in mind that what you did was extraordinary.”
“You’ve made a point,” Tony concedes. “But I’m not going to fertilize that thought. One of the things I defend against in life, and have done so for a long time, is ego stimulation. I have no desire to get carried away by my own importance.”
LanceAround counters, “The problem is, based entirely on what I saw in this movie, I have an incredible amount of respect for you. I’m not sure there’s anything I can do but stroke your ego.”
“I appreciate the compliment and the factual nature of the remark, but I’ve seen too many people destroy themselves and spoil things they’ve done because they’ve become enchanted with themselves and what they’ve done. On top of that, I’m 70 and I probably have another 30 years of life so I have other things to do rather than get preoccupied with the past.”
Once again our interview is interrupted by another woman who can’t restrain herself from greeting Tony and thanking him. Tony indicates he has to go back to his hotel, so I ask him one last question…
“I went to Messiah College, a very conservative Christian College in Pennsylvania. In my college, a young student went to a protest of Jerry Falwell. Even though he presented himself as a conservative Christian, people in our college felt Jerry Falwell did many things that were un-Christian. At that protest, this young student saw another group of protestors. Among them were two men who were walking arm in arm with a sign that read, “We won’t go back into the closet.” This young man looked at those two gay men with disgust. He thought that if these despicable people were protesting Jerry Falwell, he wanted nothing to do with the protest. What might you say to this young man if he were here with you today?”
“My answer is, if he’s a practicing Christian and he believes in Christianity, put aside the Old Testament, put aside even St. Paul, and read the words of Christ–those words alone. If he reads the sermon on the mount he’ll realize that he is not to judge. He is not to see the beam in other people’s eyes. You know, I’m not a Christian anymore. But the gospel of Christ is the gospel of love. And he should read about Mary Magdalene and take the lessons. Even the words of Christ, not the words of St. Paul or anyone else. And the words of Christ are such that he should be loving everyone. And even if they are sinners, he should love them. I would just love him. You know, just love him. People say horrible things because they don’t know better–very good people say horrible things and do horrible things because they don’t know better.”
“True confession, Tony,” responds LanceAround, “That person was me. I’m the one who used to think that two gay men were the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen and I wanted it to go away. At the time I believed I was being a good Christian. I don’t believe that now.”
“Well, I hope I’ve answered what you asked.” replies Tony. “There was a time when I didn’t take offense when I heard someone say, ‘women should be barefoot and pregnant and stay in the kitchen.’ It’s all about growing. I’m a great believer in redemption. So congratulations.”
LanceAround continues, “I want to apologize to you, and to all gay people, for the viewpoints that I had. I can see now how wrong I was. And I never knew what to do about it. This is the first time I’ve talked openly, publicly about them to someone whom I can say, ‘I was wrong!’ It took me a long time to get there. I understand that now.”
“When we do something from an honest perspective, we need to be careful when we use the word ‘wrong’. I think it’s easy to say, ‘I didn’t understand’ or ‘I was ignorant’. The only reason I say that is, it’s too common in this world today for people to say, ‘I was wrong’ and sort of blame themselves for something that you can’t blame yourself for. What you should do is celebrate and say, ‘I’ve changed’ rather than ‘I was wrong’. We’re all wrong on a multitude of things. I’ve still got those things that I wake up at two o’clock in the morning out of a deep sleep, ‘oh heavens’, and I’m thinking of something from back in the 1950s. Rejoice in the change is what we ought to do! And I really mean that.”
At this point, Mrs. LanceAround turns to Tony and says, “You are a lovely human being.”
Tony offers one final thought, “The thing that has served me better than any other thing in life is when I discovered St. Francis of Assisi. That’s really where I got my philosophy of life from.”
At this point, Tony recites a few lines from the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi to end the interview.