Clela Rorex, the former Boulder County Clerk who has been recognized as the first government official to issue a same-sex marriage license in 1975, died Sunday.
Rorex, 78, died at a hospice care facility in Longmont of complications after a recent surgery.
Throughout her life, Rorex had been identified as a pioneering ally to the LGBTQ+ community after unintentionally becoming a trailblazer for equality.
In March 1975, Rorex was given a request for a marriage license by two men from Colorado Springs. She reached out to Assistant District Attorney Bill Wise seeking clarification about any laws or codes that would prohibit the issuance, to which Wise replied 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,” according to a release from Out Boulder County.
Rorex issued the marriage license the next day.
That marriage license was issued about a year after a wave of outrage went through the Boulder area about whether to include gays and lesbians under the county’s human rights ordinances to protect them from discrimination, said Glenda Russell, retired psychologist, writer and LGBTQ+ community historian.
“There was some warning that when Clela did this, there would be a major reaction in the area,” Russell said. “Nationally at the time, most people didn’t take it too seriously because they didn’t worry about it happening again, but in Boulder, the reaction was forceful and mean spirited. She got hit with all the homophobia and heterosexism that the LGBTQ community was facing.”
Russell said Rorex always acknowledged that she “grew into her allyship” throughout the past few decades, because her original decision was not remarked as a heroic decision until much later.
“It was so (long) before its time, no one else could even imagine doing it,” Russell said. “She was out on her own in the beginning, there was not much support outside of the LGBTQ community for what she did. It wasn’t until the mid-teens that she truly received recognition and became an example of doing the right thing.”
Rorex ended up issuing a total of six same-sex marriage licenses before the Attorney General ordered her to stop. Though it was not recognized immediately, her actions became a pivotal moment for marriage equality. None of the six licenses were ever revoked or invalidated.
Gov. Jared Polis, who is the first openly gay Colorado governor, acknowledged Rorex’s passing on Facebook on Sunday.
“Her certification of same-sex marriages (until the Attorney General shut her down) was a pivotal moment in the long struggle for marriage equality that led to Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, which legalized marriage equality nationally. The Boulder County Courthouse was recently listed in the National Register of Historic Places to recognize its major significance to LGBTQ history as the site of the first official same-sex marriages,” Polis wrote. “So many families, including First Gentleman Marlon Reis and I, are grateful for the visionary leadership of Clela Rorex, a woman ahead of her time. Love is love.”
Rorex’s son, Scott Poston, said he wants his mother’s strength to always be remembered. Poston was about 8 years old when his mother was facing the backlash around the marriage licenses, and he said he remembers thinking his mother might be assassinated.
“I look back at her life now and I really admire her,” Poston said. “How many times she walked through the unknown and was a kind of frontier-person, breaking down walls. I think she tried to protect me from answering the phone and hearing threats,” Poston said. “Boulder was not a huge town back then, and she was making state headlines. I know it was really hard on her.”
Poston acknowledged Rorex’s commitment to the feminist movement and working to pioneer women being the leaders of the household, working and being independent financially.
“She wanted to do something important beyond being a mother and housewife,” Poston said. “She occupied the roles of mother, worker, and activist very well.”
Former Boulder County Commissioner Josie Heath worked with a group in the ’70s that encouraged more women to run for elected offices. She said she wanted the women who wanted to really be involved in the community to run for office, which is how she came across Rorex.
“What she did was definitely a little bit scary at the time, but I really admire her for pushing the envelope and standing up for what she believed in,” Heath said. “I am thrilled that she was able to be honored in her lifetime, because it took a long time for the country to catch up with her first actions that were so important to the equality movement.”
Along with her efforts and allyship with the LGBTQ community, Rorex has been acknowledged for the change she brought to the county clerk position itself.
In the release from Out Boulder County, Rorex is said to have instituted new practices such as expanding the county clerk office hours to ensure convenient access, randomizing the issuance of license plate numbers, which ended the practice of assigning lower-numbered plates to political elites and power brokers, and giving the responsibility of voter registration to the county clerk.
Mardi Moore, executive director of Out Boulder County, described Rorex as a sister. She described Rorex as a big part of her support system and said she was “always a champion” for her.
“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,” Moore wrote in the release. “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.”
Rorex resigned from the Boulder County clerk position in 1977, and even though she never held public office again, she continued to volunteer and support underprivileged communities throughout her life. She continued volunteering with Out Boulder County and has a Garden Party Award named after her, the Clela A. Rorex Allies in Action Award.
Rorex’s celebration of life will be on what would have been her 79th birthday, July 23. More details will follow. At Rorex’s request, in lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Out Boulder County in her name at outboulder.app.neoncrm.com/forms/in-memory-of-clela-rorex.