Remember the story about the guy who brought his horse Dolly to the county clerk in Boulder and said that he wanted a marriage license? Because he wanted to marry his horse. Remember how the punchline of that story (which turns out not to be an urban legend), was that the clerk asked how old the horse was and he said eight and the clerk said that was too young for Dolly to be married without parental permission? 

Remember how the guy was just attempting to make a big media splash to show how crazy it was that two men could get married and the ensuing slippery slope argument? I remember this story. But what I never knew in all of my decades as a Coloradan was the significance of who this young county clerk was and what she did for the gay rights movement.

Clela Rorex was a young newly-elected county clerk when two gentlemen came into her office and requested a marriage certificate. Finding no legal argument against it, she granted the marriage certificate to them and thus created a firestorm.

She was the first clerk in American history to knowingly grant a marriage certificate to a same-sex couple and proceed to record it. At the time, she didn’t know anyone who was openly gay and only thought of the decision as a basic civil right like those she and her feminist allies were fighting for at the time.

Esquire Magazine’s article, How One Woman Married Gay Couples Forty Years Ago shared Ms. Rorex’s own words, “I was editorialized against across the country. A local paper said that I was creating a Sodom and Gomorrah. They said it was going to become a mecca of gay people and it was going to destroy property values. I had entire church congregations in the area writing letters to me—mostly based on biblical references. It cost me any relationship I ever had with my brother. He didn’t like me much already because I was a feminist, but this was the frosting on the cake. I lost friends, too. It was pretty much a nightmare. But I kept issuing licenses.”

One of the couples who was issued a license was Anthony Sullivan and Richard Adams. Sullivan was an Australian facing deportation and the couple, hoping to stay together, went to Ms. Rorex seeking a license. In Ms. Rorex’s words: “The first letter they got back from INS said they had “failed to establish that a bona fide marital relationship can exist between two faggots.” Then they got a second letter that said there was no marriage because they couldn’t consummate it. So they sued the INS, and they ended up becoming the first same-sex married couple to bring a case to a court as high as the federal district court in California.”

I had never heard the name Clela Rorex until a few weeks ago at the Colorado Governor’s Citizenship Medals Celebration when she won the Colorado Mountain Leader Award posthumously. Unfortunately, Ms. Rorex passed away on June 19, 2022 in a hospice care facility in Longmont. 

Civico, the nonprofit which organizes the awards ceremony each year, recognizing local leaders and champions in Colorado made an excellent decision to honor this woman who has been largely an unsung hero.

Two of Clela Rorex’s children were in the crowd at the awards dinner and had tears in their eyes as they watched her dear friend, Mardi Moore, accept the award on her behalf.  A story was shared that one of her final requests was to meet Governor Jared Polis and First Gentleman Marlon Reis to congratulate them on their 2021 marriage. And our typically stoic Governor, who had indeed granted her final request, pushed away a tear onstage. There was nary a dry eye in the house. 

With the dark shadow of Amendment 2, and our sordid history as the “Hate State,” there is joy in learning that someone did something profound and scary on behalf of the LGBTQ community in Colorado. For the newbies, in November 1992, with a 53% majority, Colorado voters approved Amendment 2, which sought to amend the Colorado State Constitution by making it illegal to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. Thankfully, on May 20, 1996, the United States Supreme Court struck it down.

Many, like me, had not heard Ms. Rorex’s heroic story. This March, which is also Women’s History Month, let us honor this accidental activist. Cheers to you Clela Rorex, trailblazer, and LGBTQ champion. And with that I encourage anyone who is moved by her story to join me and send a donation to OUT Boulder County, an organization for which she cared deeply.