Clela Rorex, who passed away on June 19 at the start of Pride week, was an unexpected heroine. In 1975, she became not just the first Boulder County clerk to issue same-sex marriage licenses, but the first clerk to do so anywhere in the country. It created a firestorm, and after two years she resigned, never to hold elective office again.
But she's remembered: Boulder has declared today, July 23, Clela Rorex Day. There will be a celebration of her life from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Boulder Jewish Community Center. It would have been her 79th birthday.
Rorex went on to raise two sons, obtain two master's degrees, finish her career working as a legal administrator for the Native American Rights Fund, and then devote the last years of her life to LGBTQ+ ally-ship and advocacy, volunteering with Out Boulder County, an organization dedicated to facilitating connection, education and programming for LGBTQ+ individuals in and around Boulder County.
In 2014, just a year before Clela Rorex stood on the steps of the Boulder County Courthouse celebrating the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which recognized the legality of same-sex marriages, we caught up with her to discuss those days back in 1975, when "a moment of courage" shifted the course of her life. Here's that interview:
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.
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.
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....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...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.
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.
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.]
The decision had a lot of ramifications for me personally. ...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. ...
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.
RSVP for the July 23 celebration of Clela Rorex's life here.