For 35 days this summer, Boulder County Clerk and Recorder Hillary Hall made Colorado history when her office issued more than 200 same-sex marriage licenses. In doing so, she defied Colorado Attorney General John Suthers's threats of legal action. Late last month, after the Colorado Supreme Court issued a stay on same-sex marriage until it could review the case in late 2014, Hall's office once again limited marriage licenses to opposite-sex couples, and she left town for a much-needed vacation.
The 48-year-old Hall grew up in Boulder, did undergraduate work at the University of Northern Colorado, studied culinary arts in Oregon and worked as a chef in San Francisco. She has used her cooking skills to aid the Democratic Party and the Community Foundation's Open Door Fund, which offers grants to LGBTQ organizations. She served as chair of the Boulder County Democratic Party and was elected county clerk in 2006 and re-elected in 2010; she'll be running for a third term in November.
On the morning after she returned from vacation, Hall spoke with Westword about this summer's events. See also: Clela Rorex Planted the Flag for Same-Sex Marriage in Boulder Forty Years Ago
Westword: You've had a heck of a few weeks.
Hillary Hall: It's been quite a few months. The day after we completed conducting the primary election, which my office is also responsible for, the 10th Circuit came out with its ruling in the Kitchen v. Herbert case. With that, we reviewed it with our county attorneys and felt that it was enough for us to go ahead and issue licenses. On June 25, we began issuing licenses to any couple that was requesting one.
When you started that process, what did it feel like? What was going through your head?
When we started, we took it that this was someone's fundamental right. Being the person who ensures you can have that fundamental right of marriage, it was a moment of both responsibility and happiness to be able to have enough law to allow us to issue a marriage license to anyone who loves another person. It instantly went from that to "How do we implement this?"
Talk about that implementation process. What were the specifics you had to go through to get things in order so quickly?
We knew the 10th Circuit case was coming, so we had already prepped people and talked through what this would look like, what we would need to do, what forms we would use and those sorts of logistical things. We couldn't change the form, because the statute was quite clear about using a form approved by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. It said "bride-and-groom." It had that sort of language in there.
So we debated whether to use our own form or not. We didn't want to draw anything more into question, so we reached out to the department and asked them if they would approve our suggested form, and they told us no. [Laughs.] So then we went forward and used their form. We explained it to the couples and let them decide how to handle it. There were some really great one-liners from different people as they were making the decision. The one that sticks out for me was when one of the women said, "Well, I want to be the groom because I always wanted to marry a woman." I thought that was a great line.
Those were some of the logistics. The other part was not knowing how many people would show up. It's still a marriage, right? Even if you've been thinking about it, it's a commitment -- and everyone takes the commitment of wanting to be married very seriously.
We started out steady and stayed steady. We weren't sure if we'd have five or a hundred the first day. So we did the math to figure our maximum. How do you make sure you have a plan in place? Logistically, you can only do so many an hour. We figured that out and how to have a backup plan should that occur. Everyone was a little relieved when it was a very manageable wait.
What were those first marriages like? What was the climate?
It was amazing, just the atmosphere and the joy that comes with marriage to begin with, and then the added joy of people feeling recognized. The equality and justice of it also came through. The amount of that emotion was so contagious and overwhelming, and drove home what allowing everyone who loves one another to marry means.
Talk about some of the conversations you had with the couples.
We would hear their stories. Some people had been in a civil union and committed relationship, and this was the next step for them. Some people had been thinking about getting engaged and what that would mean, and this would allow them to move forward with it. It was a range of types and ages and relationships. It was a spectrum.
Some came in and were very quiet about the moment, but you could still feel how deep it was for them. Then you had others, of course, that brought a singing chorus with them. The range was just -- like all marriages -- the range of how people choose to celebrate their union.
You have the option in Colorado where you can marry yourself, or you can have a civil service, or you can have a religious service. You can take the certificate with you, or you can go ahead and get married right here at the office. We had that full range as well. We had some who wanted to go ahead and have a more formal ceremony.
The first few days, a volunteer nondenominational minister was on hand. People would go outside and have a small ceremony and come back in and record their document. And we had some who got married right there in the Clerk and Recorder's office, at the counter, while they were filling out the paperwork.
The range of experiences was incredible. We had some really quiet ones. We had Senator [Jessie] Ulibarri come in and get married. He came in with a full load of supporters. It was a very joyous and full few weeks. And that continued.
Do you have a sense of why people were getting married?
It was the full range. They wanted all of the equal protections that marriage allows couples and, underneath all that, to have the same rights as everyone else. There are so many things that are woven into the advantages of being married. As a married couple, my husband and I were having this conversation; you're not even aware of them, from the taxes to the way you relate to the schools and your children. They are so much a part of how we operate that I can't even pull them out, because for me, they're the norm. When you are denied those things because you can't be legally married, you're very aware of them.
One guy told me a story that seems so mundane but is something that I'd never have thought of. He had a company where he could get benefits for his partner, but if you were married, those were pre-tax dollars, and if you weren't married, those were post-tax dollars. It's more about: Why should that be any different? Hearing all those stories was a very eye-opening experience.
There has been back-and-forth between Colorado Attorney General John Suthers and your office. Talk about what that's been like.
I think that with the ruling in the 10th Circuit, it really added gray to the constitutionality. We've had multiple judges in our own state deem the law unconstitutional. So, for me, while he's the attorney general, it wasn't just him saying, "You need to stop." I wanted it to be reviewed with a court, and that's the process that has taken place. We still have a long way to go in that process.
His first step was getting a stay issued, and eventually, he was successful with the Supreme Court. I just got back into the office, and, of course, we're going to honor what the Supreme Court has said. As I've said all along, if the court clearly directs me to stop, then I will.
Now we're trying to figure out what's next. As far as working with his office, they've had one goal, and that is to have us stop. Nothing else would be discussed; it was all about us stopping. For us, I wanted some more authority, because we're talking about someone's fundamental rights. That's what we have courts for.
Have you had conversations with him directly?
With his office?
I haven't had any conversations with his office. Deputy County Attorney David Hughes has been the one who has led all of our legal conversations.
What has your experience of public support, or lack thereof, been through this process?
Through the whole process, we had those who were fundamentally opposed, but they were so few and far between. The stories and the e-mails and the phone calls and the letters were just absolutely incredible. I think the part that really caught me off-guard was that we got responses from people nationwide.
It was just so heartwarming and so incredible to hear their stories and to understand what having an elected official acknowledge that there should be equality meant to them. Intellectually, I knew it. To hear the stories really brought it home to your heart. One woman wrote me and said she was listening to the story on NPR and it brought to mind her uncles and how, when one of them passed, nobody stood up for the couple that they were. This touched her heart.
Hearing those things, I have this recognition that so many people have worked to bring this moment into being and how much it means for both the families and the couples. Clela Rorex talks about the hatred she experienced. Have you had similar pushback? It's so different. The vast majority of my communication has been supportive. I get hateful e-mails; it's such a minority. In my conversations with Clela, she didn't get a lot of support. People just weren't there on the issue. It's so different now. One of the things that I'm happy about is that she's getting some long-overdue support for her decision from so long ago. Keep reading for more from Hillary Hall.
What have your conversations with Rorex been like?
Mostly, it's been about her experience. She ties it a lot to her feminism and working for women's rights and being fair and just to everyone. It's come, luckily, a long way in forty years.
For me, it is about justice. It's clearly about justice for a group of people who are discriminated against. I don't tie it to anything else. That's big enough in and of itself. With Clela, it was such a different time period. There have been so many people who have been brave for so long to get us to where we are, to get us to where the majority of people support marriage for everyone.
People talk about your moral courage. How has it felt to stand up to the attorney general?
You know, it's interesting. Sometimes comments are about ourselves when we make them rather than the person we're talking with. For me, I felt like it was my job to stand up and make sure that it was more than just the attorney general, who was against this issue, making the decision.
As far as courage, the times are so different. I didn't really question whether I'd have support. I didn't really think about it, but I also knew that it was the right and just thing to do to move forward when the 10th Circuit ruling made it clear that it was a fundamental right.
One of those things that's caught me off guard is that comment about courage. I get it a little bit more when you look at what our current law says and what we moved forward with, but I feel like a greater law spoke. It's easy to move into doing what's right when the 10th Circuit declared it a fundamental right.
The 10th Circuit did stay the decision. How did you decide to move forward despite that?
Well, we took the stay to mean it would be applied for those who were directly involved in the case, just like when the Supreme Court in Colorado stayed the decision for Adams and Denver counties. They didn't stay whether it was a fundamental right. They stayed the implementation of that right. That's how we decided to go forward.
With all the hoopla, how have you dealt with this much intense focus on you?
I've dealt with it by not taking it in that much, just taking each moment and moving through it. I don't read a lot of the stories. I don't watch any of the newscasts or the press, because that's already happened. Doing so helps me stay grounded with what's right in front of me.
Don't get me wrong: I am surprised and thrilled that it has gotten the attention it has, because it's made people who wouldn't be thinking about the issue stop and think about it and think about the injustice we do to our family, our friends and our co-workers. From that standpoint, I'm very pleased with it. I do have a hard time taking it in. [Laughs.] It was much bigger than I imagined.
How has your staff been holding up?
They've been amazing. They have been so dedicated and committed. That's always how they are. They believe in serving the public, and it's just another service that they're happy to give to people. The other part with it is they don't have individual conversations about how they feel about gay marriage. They're professional, and you can't tell from the outside what they think about it. That's what I want from them.
I know them personally. Some will share anyway, and they were disappointed with the stay as well.
How has the past informed your actions?
The very first person that I think of when I first became aware of the issue was my youth pastor, when I was in tenth grade. We did these plays, and everybody loved him and pretty much thought he walked on water -- no pun intended.
It must have been the following year or shortly thereafter, he came out, and he had a family. These same people in the church who thought he was so wonderful, to see them turn on him, that was when it first started. I didn't understand what it meant to be gay. I knew that it was very hard on his family. What I didn't understand is why people thought differently of him because of that. His bravery and his stepping forward planted some serious seeds for me about injustice and how people are people and who we love is who we love. We're still the same people.
My actions have the meaning that they have today because of the forty years between when Clela started and now, and because of all the steps that people in the community and supporters of the community have taken, and the courage that they have shown to make people see the injustices being done to gay, lesbian and transgender couples. It's because of that work that when I pick up the hammer and swing at the giant glass wall, it actually starts cracking. It's because others have already put cracks in it. That's the part that gets missed. When Clela swung away at it, she made a few chinks in it. But it's that continuing.
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Every young person who comes out and is true to themselves moves the issue forward. Every couple that holds hands in public or shows their affection or declares their love because that is who they love -- that is what moves it forward.
Without all of that momentum, without all of those people every day being who they are and standing up for what they believe in, we wouldn't be where we are today. That's the part that I don't want missed.
I feel privileged to be able to take the stance I have. And it means something because of the work of so many others. Bottom line: This is about families and people who love each other. Sometimes that gets missed in the picture. Read our interview with Clela Rorex here. John Suthers has been on vacation; we hope to add his take next week.