BOULDER, CO - Out Boulder County and the family of Clela Rorex are saddened to announce the death of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer pioneering 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 struggle for marriage equality. Out Boulder County asks that you join us in honoring Clela's life and legacy during LGBTQ Pride Month, June, 2022.
Statement on Death of Clela Rorex
By Mardi Moore, Executive Director of Out Boulder County
Today, the LGBTQ+ movement lost a pioneering ally, and I lost a dear friend. Although Clela Rorex did not intend to be champion for LGBTQ+ equality, she became one on March 27, 1975 when she issued the first marriage license in the United States to a gay couple. That act of courage changed the course of her life and the course of the lives of countless LGBTQ+ people. Clela was 40 years ahead of the country's politics on marriage equality. It would be difficult to overstate how important her decision to issue that marriage license was on the movement for marriage equality.
Just as important as her historical significance is the profound impact Clela had on local members of the LGBTQ+ community, like myself, who had the opportunity to be her friend. Clela was a blessing to everyone who knew and loved her. I once told Clela that she was the ally I needed before I knew I needed one and I meant it. Her life made a huge difference, and she will be missed.
July 23, 1943 - June 19, 2022
Clela Rorex, in March 1975, became the first County Clerk in the United States to knowingly issue same-sex marriage licenses to gay couples — sparking a backlash she could never have predicted, and, for one couple, a decades-long struggle for legal recognition of their marriage.
Clela's first day as Boulder County Clerk and Recorder on January 1, 1975 was her father's last as County Clerk in Routt County, a position he had held for 30 years. A political neophyte, Clela had run an upstart campaign against an entrenched Republican Party that had held the clerkship in Colorado for decades. Her platform was two-pronged — 1) making it easier for people, especially students, to vote and 2) expanding access to the services offered through the clerk's office — vehicle licensing, voter registration, and the recording of documents, including marriage licenses.
Historically, the role of County Clerk is, sometimes paradoxically, both uncontroversial and deeply involved in the performance of government tasks that converge with personal aspects of the lives of its citizens. Clela, keenly aware of the frustration that government officials and institutions can provoke, quickly instituted new practices. She expanded County Clerk office hours — including remaining open over the lunch hour and late one night of each week — ensuring convenient access. She randomized the issuance of license plate numbers, ending the practice of assigning lower-numbered plates to political elites and powerbrokers. And, she flipped the script on voter registration — making it the responsibility of the Clerk, and not the public, to register voters.
Clela passed away 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 with teaching her the principles of fairness and respect and her mother, who taught dance out of their house, with giving her confidence. "Without either of them," she recently told this writer, "I would never have run for office."
As a young naval wife, in 1967, Clela moved to Guantanamo Bay. It is here that she reported first experiencing government-sanctioned segregation. "Everything was segregated. Everything" she later said. "It was humiliating. It had a very strong impact on me."
Clela and her son returned to Colorado in 1970 and attended the University of Colorado-Boulder, earning a BA before running for County Clerk and Recorder.
When two men from nearby Colorado Springs entered the Boulder County Clerk office on March 26, 1975, requesting a marriage license, Clela reached out to Assistant District Attorney Bill Wise, seeking clarification about any existing Colorado state law or code that would specifically prohibit her from issuing a marriage license to two people of the same sex. Mr. Wise quickly responded 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 having been so deeply involved in the women's rights movements" Clela told this writer in 2016, "who was I to then deny a right to anyone else? It wasn't my job to legislate morality."
Within days of issuing the first same-sex marriage license, local, and then national, news picked up on the story. Over the course of the next month, Clela would issue five more licenses to same-sex couples. As a result, Clela reported receiving hundreds of letters and calls to her office and her home condemning and threatening her. "My son would sometimes pick up the phone," she told this writer in 2015, "and I could always tell when it was someone calling about the licenses, because he would get this terrified look in his eyes. It changed our lives."
In late April of that year, Clela complied when Colorado State Attorney General J.D. MacFarlane directed her to stop issuing the licenses to same-sex couples. But, by that point, she had issued a license to Richard Adams and Anthony Sullivan, who had traveled from California after watching Johnny Carson mock the "wacky town" in Boulder on national television. This license, and their marriage, would set the stage for a federal battle that would resolve only 40 years later after the United State Supreme Court issued its opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, establishing a constitutional right to same-sex marriage nationwide. Mr. Adams, a U.S. citizen, and Mr. Sullivan, an Australian citizen, had been seeking to establish legal permanent residency for Mr. Sullivan through marriage, and the license they obtained from Clela would play a critical role.
In 1977, Clela resigned as Boulder County Clerk and Recorder, never to hold elective office again. She raised two sons, obtained two Masters degrees, and finished her career working as a legal administrator for the Native American Rights Fund.
In 2015, Clela celebrated the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges on the steps of the Boulder County Courthouse where she had first issued the six licenses 40 years earlier, a location that has since been added to the National Register of Historic Places. Upon hearing of 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."
Shortly thereafter, the United States government issued a green card to Anthony Sullivan, officially recognizing the marriage license that Clela had issued in 1975 as sufficient supporting documentation for the application submitted by Mr. Sullivan and his husband, Richard Adams (who had died in 2012). Thomas Miller, the creator and producer of a documentary chronicling this story, Limited Partnership, recently told this writer that, "it was Clela's keen sense of social justice and strong moral fortitude that make her one of the true pioneers in LGBTQ equality in America. She will always be treasured in the hearts of all who knew her."
To this day, none of the marriage licenses that Clela Rorex issued to same-sex marriage couples have been revoked or invalidated.
Clela dedicated 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. She will be greatly missed, including by her sons, Scott and Aron and countless LGBTQ+ individuals around the world who embrace her and her story as beacons of hope and inspiration.
Clela's celebration of life will be held 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 outboulder.app.neoncrm.com/forms/in-memory-of-clela-rorex