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

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