The Afton Arms is one of those classic Hollywood apartment buildings. Expensive and glamorous when it debuted in 1925, it’s now one of many rambling, old, middle market complexes in L.A. Over the years the Afton Arms, also nicknamed Happy Malaga Castle, has been home to movie stars, rock stars and hundreds of wannabe stars. But its most remarkable tenant might be the unassuming 75-year-old man who’s served as property manager for the past 30 years. His name is Tony Sullivan, and while quietly tending to leases and building maintenance, he also pioneered the fight to legalize gay marriage.
Inside his ground floor apartment, Sullivan keeps a framed photo of his late husband, Richard Adams, right under the TV. “I have it situated so when something comes on television that upsets me or makes me happy, I stop and talk to him,” Sullivan, 75, explains.
Sullivan is Australian. He and Adams tied the knot all the way back in 1975 — the same year they moved into the Afton Arms — hoping it would allow Sullivan to get a green card. After the U.S. Immigration Department said no, because a marriage between two men couldn’t be valid, Sullivan and Adams decided to sue. It was the first federal lawsuit seeking equal treatment for gay marriage.
“We knew what we were doing,” says Sullivan. “We were doing it to stay together, but we were totally aware of the fact that we were fighting an issue that needed to be fought and that the laws needed to be changed.”
The case dragged on for 10 years. Finally, in 1985, it ended up at California’s Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in front of a panel of three judges. It was Sullivan and Adams’ last legal shot. “It was a bizarre hearing,” Sullivan says. “The attorney for the Immigration Department kept getting everything confused. She got our names confused, she got our nationalities confused ”
Regardless, the judges decided against him and Adams, two to one. In an ironic twist, the judge who authored the decision was Anthony Kennedy, who later went on to become a U.S. Supreme Court justice.
In 2015, Kennedy wrote the Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage nationwide. But back in 1985, Kennedy’s decision meant Sullivan faced deportation. Rather than be separated, he and Adams decided to leave the country together. They packed up their apartment in Hollywood and took off for Europe with no real plan.
“Richard had a great way of looking at things,” says Sullivan, “turning around to me and saying, ‘well, let’s have the honeymoon now we never had.’”
For 11 months, they traveled the continent. They went to Paris five times. They got down to their last 69 cents. Eventually they made their way to Mexico, and snuck across the border back into the U.S.
“Of course I was scared,” Sullivan says. “God only knows what would’ve happened if they’d stopped me. But we did it all the same.”
He and Adams returned to Hollywood and the Afton Arms, but they were appalled by what they found.
“The building had gone downhill and become a crack house,” says Sullivan. They moved out again and stayed away until one day by chance, Sullivan ran into the building owner. “I gave him a hard time,” Sullivan says. “And he said, ‘if you think you can fix it up, I’ll let you be manager.’”
Sullivan took him up on it. This turned out to be incredibly lucky. As an undocumented immigrant, Sullivan’s job prospects were limited. Managing the building meant free rent, and he even negotiated an under-the-table salary. He also turned out to be a great property manager. He got rid of the drug dealers, planted the picturesque vines that now cover the Afton Arms’ façade and cleaned up the outdoor courtyard.
Sullivan says he has no regrets about how things turned out, even though property management wouldn’t have been his first choice of career if he hadn’t been undocumented. “I might’ve been a full-time writer,” he says. “At one point I really considered studying law. I definitely would’ve done something different from what I’ve done.”
As the years went by, Sullivan’s undocumented status kind of faded into the background as he and Adams settled into ordinary married life, legal or not. Then, in late 2011, they got bad news. Adams was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. He died one month later, on December 17, 2012 at age 65.
“The day before he died, we went to see a Woody Allen movie and went out for dinner, “ Sullivan says. “That was such a blessing. He didn’t go through all that horrible stuff.”
Two and a half years later, the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. For Sullivan, the decision — after so many years in the shadows, after Adams’ death — felt anti-climactic. “It was a great moment, a victory,” he says, “but I just felt detached from it.”
As for Justice Kennedy, he has no hard feelings. “I’m just thrilled that he’s a human being who has the ability to grow,” Sullivan says.
Now Sullivan has applied for citizenship as a widower. He expects an answer any day and his lawyer is optimistic. “What a wonderful life I’ve had,” Sullivan says. “I mean, a really wonderful life. To have been involved in an unbelievable love story — I think every child, boy child as well as girl child, fantasizes about being in love. And I got it.