LONGMONT, CO. – Out Boulder County and the family of Clela Rorex are saddened to announce the passing of a trailblazing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer ally, Clela Rorex. On March 27, 1975, Clela issued the first marriage license to a same-sex couple in the United States. Her decision that day changed her life and was a pivotal moment in the decades-long fight for marriage equality.
“The LGBTQ+ movement has lost a pioneering ally and I have lost a dear friend. Although Clela Rorex did not intend to be a champion of LGBTQ+ equality, she did on March 27, 1975 when she issued the first marriage license in the United States to a homosexual couple. This act of courage changed the course of her life and that of countless LGBTQ+ people. Clela was 40 years ahead of the nation’s marriage equality policy. It would be hard to overstate how important her decision to issue this marriage license was to the movement for marriage equality,” Out Boulder County Executive Director Mardi Moore said in a statement.
Just as important as its historical significance is the profound impact Clela had on local members of the LGBTQ+ community, like me, who had the opportunity to be her friend. Clela was a blessing to all who knew and loved her. I once told Clela she was the ally I needed before I knew I needed her and I meant it. Her life made a huge difference and she will be missed,” Moore added.
Clela Rorex, in March 1975, became the first county clerk in the United States to knowingly issue same-sex marriage licenses to same-sex couples – sparking a backlash she could never have foreseen and, for one couple, a struggle decades for justice. recognition of their marriage.
Clela’s first day as Boulder County Clerk and Recorder on January 1, 1975 was her father’s last as Routt County Clerk, a position he had held for 30 years. A neophyte in politics, Clela had led an upstart campaign against an entrenched Republican party that had served as secretary in Colorado for decades.
His platform was two-pronged – 1) making it easier for people, especially students, to vote, and 2) expanding access to the services offered by the Clerk’s Office – vehicle registration, voter registration and document registration, including marriage licenses.
Historically, the role of the county clerk is, sometimes paradoxically, both indisputable and deeply involved in the performance of governmental tasks which converge with the personal aspects of the lives of its citizens.
Clela, well aware of the frustration government officials and institutions can cause, quickly implemented new practices. She extended the opening hours of the county clerk’s office – including staying open during lunchtime and late one evening each week – ensuring convenient access.
It randomized the issuance of license plate numbers, ending the practice of awarding lower number plates to political elites and the powerful. And, she flipped the script on voter registration — making the clerk, not the public, the responsibility of registering voters.
Clela died on June 19, 2022 in Longmont, Colorado.
Clela Rorex was born in Denver on July 23, 1943. Within days she was adopted by Cecil and Ruby Rorex in Steamboat Springs – where she spent her childhood. She credits her father for teaching her the principles of fairness and respect and her mother, who taught dance outside their home, for giving her confidence. “Without one of them,” she recently told this writer, “I would never have run for office.”
As a young Navy bride, in 1967 Clela moved to Guantanamo Bay. It was here that she said she first experienced government-sanctioned segregation. “Everything was separate. Everything,” she said later. “It was humbling. It had a very strong impact on me.”
Clela and her son returned to Colorado in 1970 and attended the University of Colorado at Boulder, earning a BA before running for county clerk and recorder.
When two men from nearby Colorado Springs walked into the Boulder County Clerk’s office on March 26, 1975, asking for a marriage license, Clela contacted Assistant District Attorney Bill Wise, asking for clarification on any law or Colorado’s existing state code that would specifically prohibit her from issuing a marriage license to two people of the same sex.
Mr Wise was quick to reply that ‘there is no statutory law prohibiting the issuance of a license, probably because the situation was simply not contemplated in the past by our legislature’. Clela issued the license to the couple the following day, March 27, 1975.
“After being so deeply involved in women’s rights movements,” Clela told this writer in 2016, “who was I to then deny someone else a right? It was not my job to legislate morality.
Days after the first same-sex marriage license was issued, local and then national news picked up the story. Over the next month, Clela would issue five more licenses to same-sex couples. As a result, Clela said she received hundreds of letters and calls to her office and home condemning and threatening her. “My son would pick up the phone sometimes,” she told this writer in 2015, “and I could always tell when it was someone calling about licensing, because he’d have that terrified look in his eye. It changed our lives.
In late April of that year, Clela complied when Colorado State Attorney General JD MacFarlane ordered her to stop issuing licenses to same-sex couples. But, by then, she had issued a license to Richard Adams and Anthony Sullivan, who had traveled from California after seeing Johnny Carson poke fun at the “goofy town” of Boulder on national television.
This license and their marriage would pave the way for a federal battle that would not be resolved until 40 years later after the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in Oberfelfell v. Hodges, establishing a constitutional right to same-sex marriage nationwide. Mr. Adams, a US citizen, and Mr. Sullivan, an Australian citizen, had sought to establish Mr. Sullivan’s lawful permanent residence through marriage, and the license they had obtained from Clela would play a vital role.
In 1977, Clela resigned as Boulder County Clerk and Recorder, never to hold elected office again. She raised two sons, earned two master’s degrees, and ended her career as the legal administrator of the Native American Rights Fund.
In 2015, Clela celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision by Oberfelfell v. Hodges on the steps of the Boulder County Courthouse where she first issued the six licenses 40 years earlier, a location that has since been added to the National Register of Historic Places. After hearing the decision, former District Attorney Bill Wise told this writer that “Clela was so far ahead of the country on this issue that it took the United States Supreme Court 40 years to catch up with her delay”.
Shortly thereafter, the United States government issued a green card to Anthony Sullivan, officially recognizing the marriage license Clela had issued in 1975 as sufficient supporting documentation for the application submitted by Mr. Sullivan and her husband, Richard Adams. (died 2012).
Thomas Miller, the creator and producer of a documentary telling this story, Limited Partnership, stated that “It is Clela’s strong sense of social justice and moral fortitude that makes her one of the true pioneers of LGBTQ equality in America. She will always be cherished in the hearts of all who knew her.”
To date, none of the marriage licenses issued by Clela Rorex to same-sex married couples have been revoked or invalidated.
Clela dedicated the last years of her life to LGBTQ+ ally and advocacy, volunteering with Out Boulder County, an organization dedicated to facilitating connection, education and programming for LGBTQ+ people in and around of Boulder County.
She will be sorely missed, including her sons, Scott and Aron and countless LGBTQ+ people around the world who embrace her and her story as beacons of hope and inspiration.
Clela’s celebration of life will take place on what would have been her 79th birthday, July 23, 2022. Details are forthcoming. At Clela’s request, in lieu of flowers, donations can be made in Clela’s name to Out Boulder County at https://outboulder.app.neoncrm.com/forms/in-memory-of-clela-rorex