“I was never political when I was in the closet. I think I always wanted to be invisible. But it didn’t stop me from thinking about what I wanted.” – Tom Miller
Tom Miller, the co-writer and director of the award-winning documentary Limited Partnership, brought his passion project to life last year.
It took over a decade to happen and the cinema world has responded in kind. The film takes a look at real life couple Richard Adams, an American, and Tony Sullivan, the Australian he wanted to marry. The story first begins 40 years ago and the timing of its release and its increased popularity coincides with the nation’s decision on whether or not two consensual adults who love each other and want to spend the rest of their lives together are offered equal legal and financial standing, regardless of sexual orientation.
Tom, a Shaker Heights son who once practiced pediatrics in the 216, now lives in L.A., where he makes documentaries and teaches film at USC. He’s excited because he recently transitioned from adjunct to full time faculty. And between that work and the labor of love he’s brought to the Cleveland International Film Festival (CIFF), his schedule keeps him busy. That is the reward of doing something you love.
Luckily for me, he agreed to an in person interview and suggested an east side favorite — Corky and Lenny’s. We sat down at a quiet booth near the mirrored wall and, over a proper meal of bagels, lox and cream cheese, began our in-depth discussion. Luckily for all of us, Tom revealed the personal odyssey that has resulted in this very moment.
Alex Sukhoy: You co-wrote and directed Limited Partnership. What drew you to the story?
Tom Miller: I moved to LA in 1992 to go to film school at UCS. I was also in the closet. As I was living there for a few years, I fell in love with documentary film. I thought I was going to do children’s television (he’s worked on Sesame Street). But I really saw the power of documentary. Also, because I have a tracheotomy, I thought editing would be good for me go to into because you didn’t have to talk very much. In documentary there’s also no scripts. You’re also the writer.
I noticed that a lot of my gay friends were in relationships with people from another country. Because in L.A., I think 40% of the population is from another country. And so, as the relationships were getting more serious, they were discovering that there was no way the you could keep their foreign partner in the country. You couldn’t get married. And gays were unable to bring a partner of the of same sex into this country. They estimate there’s around 40,000 gay couples that had no way of staying together. Because at that point also there were no other countries that was letting in the (gay American couples)… Knowing the power of documentary, I thought this would be a really good topic.
I was thinking about it for several years. As I first went out in 2001, I started looking at this film, to try and change the government policy and immigration and indirectly, gay marriage. They’re tied together. That’s what got me into this film. Fifteen years ago.
One of the reasons I also made this film was because so many of the younger GLBT population… have no idea that people have been fighting (for these rights) for over forty years. It’s not just to educate the straight population. I wanted to show who some of the pioneers were in our own population. So that they can recognize some of these unsung heroes are the reason why we have these rights right now. So it’s not just about the fight for gay marriage or immigration. It’s also to show that there are many people and many years that went into this.
Young people today they think they can have everything. You can have a job and still get fired in more than fifty states right now just for being gay.
AS: Richard Adams and Tony Sullivan met in 1975. How did you gather all the footage to make it come together?
TM: Originally Richard and Tony were going to be the spine of the film. They were living underground because Tony was and illegal alien. I wanted to (contact) some current couples and so I worked on that for several years. To try and uncover Richard and Tony’s story, they were the first gay couple to sue the Federal Government for equal marriage rights in 1975. So there was some footage of them at that point and they were also six gay couples that married legally in Boulder, Colorado in 1975, which most people don’t know anything about. There was a lot of magazine and newspaper footage, but not a lot of TV news footage. And then when Richard and Tony sued the government, that process went on for ten years.
I was able to over four to five years dig up footage of them. Even to the point to the day we stopped editing, I had asked CBS news for footage (3 years earlier) and they happen to send us footage that day. On something we hadn’t seen before. So it really took almost twelve years to gather footage and newspaper articles and magazine articles and photos from all over the place. A lot of the film was archival.
AS: Limited Partnership screens at the CIFF. You’re originally from Shaker. How does it feel bringing your film to your hometown?
TM: I was a pediatrician in Cleveland for seven years. And I’d known I was gay before I knew what gay was. I knew there’s no way I could be out and in pediatric care on the east side of Cleveland. I was never in any relationships or anything like that, but I lived my life for 25 years in the closet. Maybe that’s another reason why I choose to make every other third of fourth film I participate in a gay and or lesbian film so that people don’t have to do what I felt I had to do.
It’s really gratifying to be back in Cleveland and getting a chance to screen Limited Partnership here…I’ve had some films I’ve edited screen here. One was Rocking the Boat. One was called Home of the Brave. In 2008, I brought One Bad Cat here. That was an unbelievable experience as it ended up winning an award here.
This one is a little more personal because it’s about a GLBT issue. It’ll be the first time my parents (who are usually in Florida over Spring Break) will be in town to see a screening. My family will be here his time. My dad will be out and he’s almost 96 and my mom is in her 80′s. It’ll be great to have them here. We have a panel on Saturday and I’ll do a Q&A on Friday.
Showing it in Cleveland it’s extra special because the film is going to show on PBS on June 15. A week or a week and a half later the Supreme Court is going to decide on gay marriage. I started this film when there was no gay marriage anywhere, fifteen years ago. It’s just unbelievable that the film and the story have come all the way at the same time. Showing it in Cleveland just before it happens is really a big honor and I’m very excited to do it.
AS: Adam’s and Sullivan’s story has reached a 40-year full arc, given the fight for marriage equality. What do you think opened Americans’ hearts, minds and legislature? What changed?
TM: I think as more people came out, as more states recognized gay marriage, people saw that it didn’t change anything. It didn’t change their lives. It certainly changed GLBT people’s lives. They weren’t afraid of this as I think there’s was this great sense of fear. I also think that the younger generation is, because of things in the media, and seeing things on television and in film for the past fifteen years, they’ve been exposed to gay people and most of them know gay and lesbian people. They don’t see any difference. This is not an issue for people in their 20′s or almost in their 30′s. It’s almost an issue for people that are my age, that are in their 50′s and 60′s. But those people are going out of office, also. The younger generation is coming into legislature and government positions. I think that’s also helped changed the perception.
One of the things that totally relates to our movie is that Judge Anthony Kennedy who is now Justice of the Supreme Court, he was one of the judges that ruled on Adam’s and Tony’s case. He was actually the one the gave the final judgement that caused Tony to be deported. And he’s the judge who now is the swing vote, voting for gay marriage in the Supreme Court. he’s watched the country change and he’s changed also. It gives me hope. That it’s time.
AS: Limited Partnership has won numerous awards. What is striking the chord with people about this story?
TM: No matter what the audience we play in, gay and lesbian festivals…we played in Asian festivals, people see the characters as people, not as gay people or Asians or foreigners. They see how one couple fought for forty years to stay together, against our own government. And the result of what happened after those forty years. People are moved by that.
AS: Given your Cleveland roots and the subject matter of this film, how do you feel about the Gay Games coming to Cleveland last year?
TM: I was excited that the Gay Games were here. It’s a little bittersweet for me. As I didn’t know who I was when I lived here. It’s gratifying to know that things have changed in 25 years. Though I’m still not sure I could be a gay pediatrician in private practice here. I can in many places, but I’m not sure here.
I always support Cleveland. My family’s been involved in (building) Downtown Cleveland…, so I’m always excited when things are happening here. It’s why I like the (Cleveland International) Film Festival so much. It’s such a positive event in downtown Cleveland, amongst many, which is exciting to me. the only regret I have is that no sports team has won a championship here since I was little boy.
That would be really exciting. If the Gay Games were here and LeBron could bring a championship here.
AS: What advice do you have for people transitioning their careers?
TM: For me, when I had to give up medicine, you have two choices. You can dwell on the negative or you can think about the other possibilities. You have to change your mindset, first of all. And gain a little bit of self confidence. I’m conservative but I felt like I had taken a risk because without that you’d just be stuck.
Use your common sense, take a risk and work extremely hard, knowing that it’s not going to come overnight. Most people’s first jobs didn’t come overnight. So you have to work really hard to build up the skills you need. You have to work your way up another ladder. So you have to realize it’s going to take a few years. Not next month, I’m going to get a different job at a different place. Be willing to give up other parts of your life if you really want to establish yourself. Knowing that once you do and you get yourself up on the right track, other things come along with it naturally. You can’t give up. You keep going.
I love making films. I love teaching.
AS: What’s next for you? Or even with this film?
TM: I’m very fortunate the film will be be screening on Independent Lens on PBS on June 15. PBS picked our film as one of the films that they are doing community outreach with. In May it’ll be shown in 75 different cities across the country followed by discussions about gay marriage and immigration rights. And about what it’s like to live in this country. Especially, that end of April, the Supreme Court will be hearing about gay marriage from the Ohio Court. And ruling on it the week after our film showing on national television. My hope is that our film will be part of that final conversation, to show that we are Americans and we deserve the same rights as everybody else has. And that includes marriage rights and immigration rights. So that people who are gay and lesbian don’t have to fight the government for forty years to stay together, like our two main characters, Richard and Tony.
After that I’m going to take a vacation. I haven’t been on vacation in almost three years. I’m going to keep on teaching. I don’t know what I’ll do after that. I need a little break as I’ve been working on this film for fifteen years. (And) I teach full time at USC. I’m sure I’ll be supervising editing on other people’s films.
I’ll figure out another film to work on. Right now, I just need a break.
Reprinted with permission and gratitude from CoolCleveland.com.