Clela Rorex Planted the Flag for Same-Sex Marriage in Boulder Forty Years Ago

On June 25, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down Utah's gay-marriage ban, setting a precedent for states in its jurisdiction, including Colorado, where voters had adopted a ban on same-sex marriages in 2006. Hours later, Boulder County Clerk Hillary Hall began issuing same-sex marriage licenses. For weeks, Colorado Attorney General John Suthers threatened Hall with legal action for violating state law. Her office warded him off in court and issued over 200 licenses before the Colorado Supreme Court finally announced on July 29 that it would consider Suthers's arguments in late 2014 -- and ordered Hall to stop issuing licenses in the meantime. Meanwhile, the Utah case has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

This summer, Clela Rorex has been watching history repeat itself. Thirty-nine years ago, she was not just the first Boulder county clerk to issue same-sex marriage licenses, but the first clerk to do so anywhere in the country.

See also: A Same-Sex Marriage Plaintiff's Open Letter to John Suthers

The political climate has changed over the past forty years, she says. Today there is support for same-sex marriage, and for Hall. Back in 1975, Rorex's actions left her alone. The Democrats abandoned her. The gay community never showed up. The political establishment ostracized her. Even her beloved feminist movement frowned on her stance.

We recently met with Rorex to learn how what she describes as "a moment of courage" shifted the course of her life.

Westword: Let's start with why you got elected and go from there.

Clela Rorex: I was never the kind of person who thought I would run for political office, but I was an active citizen in the '70s. I went to a Democratic powers-that-be meeting. The Boulder county clerk, who had held the office for thirty years, part of the Republican Party, was retiring. The candidate for the Republican Party was a woman who had been there for several years as a deputy. The Democrats met and tried to discuss whether or not to put anyone up against her. I happened to go to that meeting.

There was a young guy in the crowd that they were trying to talk into running for county clerk. He said, "Oh, I just don't see myself in that position. That's not a position I want." The meeting went on. They said, "We need a man to run against the Republican candidate."

I was so irritated that I went back to my feminist group and related that. I said, "Here we can't have one woman running for office. The Democrats think it has to be a man to in order to win the office."

My friend said, "Well, if you feel that way about it, why don't you run for office?"

I said, "I think I will." I know a little something about county clerks, because my father had been a county clerk in Routt County, over by Steamboat, for thirty years. I worked a couple summers with him in the office. So I ran as this young, feminist woman. I was a single parent.

I had no idea how to run a campaign, and neither did my friends. We were pretty much on our own, because I wasn't getting much support from the Democratic Party. They were mad when I declared my candidacy. At the county assembly, they even went so far as to nominate a man from the floor who would run for office.

So I had a primary. My little group kind of grew. We did things, when we ran, in an unusual way. For instance, I had a brochure that was Japanese origami. I doubt anyone since has been crazy enough to try that for a political brochure. We sat around gluing that thing for hours and hours and hours. I just didn't have any kind of typical campaign at all.

Much to my surprise, I won the primary. I really was surprised to win the general. I took office.

The county clerk who was there at the time was Henry Putnam. I was sworn in and went to the office, and Henry Putnam would not turn over the keys to the safe. He wouldn't vacate the office. Sheriff's officers had to come and take him out. He was so mad I had won the job that they had to take him out of the office and get a locksmith to unlock the safe. That was how I began.

I was there about three months, and that was when the first two men from Colorado Springs came for a marriage license.

Before and during my own election, the city council in Boulder had been involved with a city ordinance designed to prohibit discrimination in housing and employment for the gay community. That created a huge uproar. I was not involved in that campaign at all. There was a recall election, and they recalled one of the city councilpeople over this city ordinance. The city of Boulder had been fighting already over the discrimination of gays.

That was pretty much my sole knowledge of anything related to the gay community.... The two Daves -- Dave McCord and Dave Zamora -- they went to their county clerk in Colorado Springs and asked for a marriage license. She said, "I don't do that here. Go to Boulder. They do that type of thing there." That statement was all based on what she had heard about the brouhaha over the city ordinance that Boulder had been trying to pass. So they came to Boulder and applied for a marriage license. They asked if they could have one, and I said, "I honestly don't know. I don't know if I can do this, but I will find out and get back with you."

I didn't just reject them immediately. I went to our district attorney, who at the time was Alex Hunter, and his deputy was Bill Wise. They researched Colorado marriage code and wrote an opinion to me that the marriage code did not, at that time, say anything about whether a marriage should be between a man and a woman. They said, "It doesn't specify. So if you want to go ahead and issue a license, you'd be within your legal right to do so. It's your decision."

I slept on it for a night or two -- I can't quite remember -- and called the guys up. They came back, and I issued them a license. I issued them a license because I felt deeply that it was just a fairness thing.

We were fighting as women for legal rights and equal rights. The gay community was kind of behind the women's movement, which was coming into its own in Boulder. I did not know anybody in the gay movement. I really did not. I knew no gay couples whatsoever. I probably came across a couple of lesbian women in the feminist things we were doing around town, but didn't really know them.

So to me, it was pretty clear. It's not against the law. They're asking for this right. Who am I to say otherwise? I issued a license. That was how it started.

Continue for more of our interview with Clela Rorex. Where did it go from there? All hell broke loose, as you can imagine. I was not prepared. I knew it would be controversial, but I was totally unprepared for the onslaught of hate.

When I see the same kind of hate being spewed today, toward whatever marginalized group -- it could be at the border or same-sex couples trying to marry still -- it is something that has always upset me.

I hadn't lived very long in Boulder. I'd gone to school here, and I'd married. I'd returned to Boulder four years before. I came from being a military wife, a naval officer's wife stationed at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for three years. You couldn't get more isolated than that.

Growing up in Steamboat when I did, it was a very small town. We had one black family. I have no idea if there were any gays or lesbians there. That was not even a word in my vocabulary. Looking back on it, I think my parents probably referred to lesbians as spinsters and gays as bachelors. I had no vocabulary for that.

When I lived in Guantánamo, that was the first time I had seen actual real discrimination. Our workers were all brought in from Jamaica. They were all black. They were segregated from the rest of the base, segregated in the back rows, in a special roped-off area when we went to the movie theater. That had an impact on me.

That was the kind of person I was becoming when I came back to Boulder and took office. I had this realization of what discrimination meant for people and how it would impact their lives to not have the same equal rights as other people. However, I had never been exposed to the hate that would emanate from those kinds of things. That was truly a shock for me -- the hate mail, the hate calls, the Boulder Camera and every place editorializing against me.

What did they say?

The Camera said I was going to create a haven for gays. They were going to be flocking here and taking over Boulder and lowering the property values. In Longmont, for instance, entire church congregations wrote letters to me about how I was creating a Sodom and Gomorrah and how this was a sin of God -- a lot of the same arguments that they use today, forty years later. I was just stunned by the hate.

It was automatically assumed by many that I was a lesbian myself and that I was helping my own. The hate was what got to me. I continued to issue five more licenses until the Colorado attorney general issued a letter. It wasn't an order, but it was a strong suggestion that was very similar to what Suthers said to Hillary Hall.

It was never conceived that marriage would be anything but between a man and a woman, and that by me issuing licenses to people of the same sex -- "these people" -- I was misleading them into thinking they would have rights that they would never have.

Then my district attorney said, in the eyes of the public, the attorney general has a wider influence than I do. Technically, he has more influence than the district attorney and I did as an elected official, although I don't know that I really understood that at the time. At that point, I stopped issuing licenses.

Continue for more of our interview with Clela Rorex. Where did the hate you experienced come from?

The churches, for sure. I would say everybody. At that time, for the most part, people thought that homosexuality was some sort of a perversion -- even though it's been around for thousands of years and has been a part of the fabric of every society. I think homosexuality coupled with perversion was the whole thing at the time. That was the degree of education people had, for the most part.

What's the story about the cowboy and his horse?

Okay, the horse story.

Over the years, a lot of public officials have said, "Oh, you see what happens. People will end up marrying their dog or their horse or whatever."

There was an old guy in Boulder at the time, Ros Howard. He was an old media hack. He had done work in the media when he was younger. He was much older than I was. He was an alcoholic -- a bad one -- and he decided to set up a photo opportunity for himself.

I was standing in the courthouse looking out the window. I saw these media trucks coming, and I saw him pull up with his horse trailer and unload his horse, and I thought, what the heck? I had no idea.

And then it dawned on me. I started flipping through our marriage code as fast as I could with my deputy. We were thinking, "What are we going to do? What are we going to do?" I was trying to track down Alex Hunter but couldn't reach him. We had this idea. So I just let it play out.

Ros came in and said his favorite line to the media: "If a man can marry a man and a woman can marry a woman, why can't a tired old cowboy like me marry his best friend, Dolly?" That was his line.

He came in, and I stood behind the counter and started filling out the marriage license calmly. When I got to the age of the bride, he said she was eight. At that point, I just laid down my pen and said, "Sorry. Dolly's not old enough without parental permission."

Ros Howard loved that. What the people never knew was the aftermath of that. He kept calling me up wanting me to meet him personally, like a date, and suggesting that maybe he and I should be the ones to get married. [Laughs.] That part never really got legs. For a long time, I didn't really want to tell that story. At the time, it lifted the heaviness of it all. A lot of people realized that this is stupid. We're not talking about an animal here; we're talking about people.

I've kind of accepted the fact that everybody wants to hear that part of the story. It was very creative of Ros Howard, very creative. They even had his picture in the courthouse, much to my surprise.

How did your decision to issue the licenses impact you?

I often say I grew into my decision and that it circumscribed my whole life. What I mean by that is that it was always an issue in my life from then on. I had jobs that I did not get because of my reputation. People thought I was a flake or worse -- one of those. [Laughs.] I don't know.

There was so much opinion over it. It was just such an anomaly. I thought I couldn't have relationships. There were a lot of people who were blatantly discriminatory.

I became uncomfortable with church. Over these forty years, I evolved from being a girl who went to college on a Methodist scholarship to now being an atheist because of the unwelcome response of churches throughout my life to women and gays. Of course, it's not all churches now, but it's rather too late for me. I have become an atheist.

The decision had a lot of ramifications for me personally. At the time that I issued the license, I had no community of support like Hillary Hall and others have had now. The Democratic Party wasn't supporting the issue. In fact, they didn't want to touch it with a ten-foot pole.

Elected officials were furious with me for having done that and brought it up: They might have to discuss it at the legislature.

Within my own group of friends at the time, the women's movement was being told by Betty Friedan that lesbians were "the lavender menace." She was afraid they would co-opt the women's movement if they were allowed to participate actively to help pass the Equal Rights Amendment or whatever else we were fighting for. It was very confusing.

And then, of course, the gay community was not there to support me themselves. They just simply were not there then. They were not, as it turns out, even close to the point of thinking about marriage. I've learned this since.

They had many more battles to fight, including keeping themselves alive because of AIDS in the period immediately following the issuing of licenses. And to even think about organizing to promote marriage equality.... Even when they did, they were split among themselves, in the gay movement, whether they should ask for that or not.

So I had no community. I was very much isolated and alone with that decision for a very, very, very long time. For many years.

I love seeing how the community of Democrats and the gay community have rallied behind Hillary Hall, as she's stood firm with this decision that she made to come forward. It's great to see people admire what Hillary Hall has helped firm up.... Her heart's been in the right place. She's got the courage to stand up and to continue to issue licenses in spite of John Suthers.

Continue for more of our interview with Clela Rorex. Talk about how you dealt with the isolation, the hate mail, the phone calls and decades of alienation.

I never handled it well, that's for sure. I suffered at the time from horrible migraines. I've had them since I was a child, so that was nothing new. I was inevitably going to the emergency room for morphine shots. Every time I'd go in, the doctor would say, "Oh, I knew you'd be in."

All my life, I've suffered from physical illnesses like migraines and fibromyalgia that are very much impacted by stress. My life has been stressful. I never learned how to handle stress very well other than [to] internalize it. That was certainly very true when I was only 31 years old.

How did you leave office?

I resigned from office about two and a half years into my term. They were mounting a recall effort to get me out of office, but I hadn't been in office long enough for the recall to happen at the time I issued the licenses. So I knew that would come. I knew that I could never go through that.

I met somebody and decided to marry him, and moved to California. By resigning, I knew it would give the Democratic Party a chance to fill the seat, the vacancy, which they did. That was how I left. Then I came back. Colorado's home and always will be, and the marriage didn't work, and I've just continued to go through life doing what I could do.

I completed two master's degrees in the interim. I've always worked, mostly in the public sector, as an administrator for a professional organization, like law firms. My last job that I retired from about three years ago was with the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder. I was still doing civil-rights work by serving as a legal administrator for the organization. When I decided to leave NARF after eighteen years, the timing was with what we called peer reviews, where everybody got to write comments about you.

Someone there, who I had supposedly worked with for so, so many years, wrote an anonymous comment that said, "Thank God she's leaving. I'm so sick of hearing about gays."

That impacted me a lot, to leave the job knowing that I had worked for years with somebody who actually felt that way.

And so I speak up now. I speak up a lot more than I used to. I'm a strong ally. I call myself an activist ally to the gay community.

Talk about your work as an ally. What does that mean?

I speak to public schools during the year and love that. Out Boulder does panels in two schools. The panel is always representative of people of different gender identities: someone who's gay or lesbian, bisexual or transgender, or however they might identify themselves.

I identify as a straight ally. I love the word "ally." I had always said I'm an advocate or a supporter or whatever. Someone finally clued me in and said, why don't you just call yourself an ally? That's what we call people. I said, "I love that."

Now I can be something. I can have that name. I'm very proud to tell people I am an ally, and when I meet new people and the conversation shifts such that I can say that, I say, "I am an ally for gay rights and marriage equality."

I speak up, and I talk to kids. They want to know how they can be allies. We talk about having a moment of courage where they hear somebody denigrating someone else for what they are. Even though it's uncomfortable and you don't know quite what magic words to say, it's important to say something at that moment.

If somebody is being hurt because they might be a gay or lesbian student in high school or even middle school, you should let them know you are an ally, meaning you support them and they can talk to you.

That's how I view my little job now. I've retired, but I view my job, right at this moment, with all that is going on with Hillary, with Colorado, my job is to speak up and talk about my history and my beliefs on marriage equality and gay rights as much as I can.

Talk about the conversations you've had with Hillary Hall. Have you been in a mentor relationship with her at all?

Oh, I wouldn't say mentorship. She is standing in her own shoes. She's younger than I am, probably by half. I don't know exactly how old she is, but I just turned 71. She's very solid. She's poised. She's professional. She's just quietly doing what she thinks is the right thing now to do -- which was issue marriage licenses.

I feel like that was how I was when I was her age. I considered myself rather introverted. It was very hard for me to be out running for public office and trying to do speeches. Now it's not as hard, because I'm more used to it. Hillary is of that same ilk. Putting yourself out there like this is the thing that has to be done.

She has quietly stood up to John Suthers for as long as she could and quietly issued her licenses. She's quietly gone about getting forms that say groom-groom and bride-bride and just making administrative decisions that make sense when the issue comes up. I admire her a lot. She's the perfect person to have had in the county clerk's office at this time.

What are your thoughts on John Suthers?

As far as John Suthers goes, I feel like he's got an agenda way beyond this simple issue of the fact that we have a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. He himself has said he knows it's unconstitutional, yet he continues to fight it.

I've heard that he's going to try to run for mayor in Colorado Springs before his term ends, and that could explain some of that. I was shocked to hear that he had signed Colorado on to support the attorney general in Indiana with their fight against not having their constitutional ban overturned. Apparently he offered his assistance to other states.

Why? He recognizes that it's unconstitutional. He's already gone that far. But he won't go so far as to say, "I'm not going to fight it anymore." He keeps pursuing it and pursuing it. I don't understand it at all. I don't understand why, other than that it is personal with him, obviously, at some level. It's very personal.

In the meantime, I now know many couples who are in a state of limbo here in Colorado. They have kids -- little kids, they have a family unit -- and yet they're still being denied. Even though they got married, they are being denied certain legal rights that they've paid all of their lives to have.

So it's going to have to wait till the Supreme Court decides, I guess. That's disheartening to see -- especially for Colorado.

I'm a native of Colorado. I love Colorado. I feel like we're a very progressive state. I know that we're not a completely blue state, but I do feel like we're a progressive state with kind people in it. And why our state has to continue to turn our backs on same-sex married couples is beyond me. I just don't get it.

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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris