Man at His Best

How One Woman Married Gay Couples Forty Years Ago

Her actions caused a statewide, then national, outcry, and ultimately helped draw the battle lines in a fight for equality that would last four decades.

BY AS TOLD TO JACK HOLMES | Jun 27, 2016 | Culture

Clela Rorex took office as the Boulder county clerk in Colorado on January 1, 1975. She ran as a Democrat on a platform of combating voter suppression—the voting age had just been lowered from twenty-one to eighteen, and some resisted the change—but her campaign was also remarkable because she was, in her words, "a feminist who wore short skirts, had long hair, and was a single parent."

But all that fell by the wayside when, forty years before the Supreme Court's Obergefell v. Hodges decision, she began issuing marriage licences to same-sex couples.

Her actions caused a statewide, then national, outcry, and ultimately helped draw the battle lines in a fight for equality that would last four decades.

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It was three months into my term that the first couple came to me. They were both named Dave—Dave McCord and Dave Zamora. They had gone to the county clerk in Colorado Springs to get a marriage licence. The clerk there said, "We don't do those kinds of things here. Go to Boulder."

She was talking about the brouhaha from a year earlier, when the Boulder city council tried to pass a nondiscrimination law for gay people. That got two council members put up for recall elections—though only one was recalled—and one of them was outed as gay. And it got the Colorado Springs clerk thinking Boulder was such a liberal hotbed that they could get a marriage licence here.

Courtesy of Clela Rorex | Rorex (back) with Dave McCord (C) and Dave Zamora (R).


I didn't issue a licence immediately. I honestly didn't know whether I could. So I told them I would get an opinion from the local district attorney. I did, and a week or so later he advised me that the Colorado code at the time did not specify that marriage had to be between a man and a woman. So his advice was that if I wanted to marry them, I could give them a licence.

I had thought about it while I was waiting for the decision. I didn't know anyone in the gay community at the time, or at least I thought I didn't. Some came out of the closet later. I didn't know whether anyone in the community even wanted to be married. But I was a feminist. I decided to run for clerk when, at a meeting about the election, the Democratic party insisted they wanted a man to run. We were asking for equal rights, and who would I be to deny somebody else who was asking for the same rights?

So I issued the licence, and all hell broke loose.

"Who would I be to deny somebody else who was asking for the same equal rights? So I issued the licence, and all hell broke loose."
 

I was editorialised 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 licences.

Boulder County Clerk's Office.


For two months in 1975, Rorex issued marriage licences to gay couples who came to her office. They weren't only from Boulder, though, or even from Colorado. They traveled from all over the country to have their union codified under the law.

There were three couples from Colorado and three from other states. I always think of one couple from California: Anthony Sullivan and Richard Adams. They had been together for about three years, but Tony was Australian and was about to be deported because his visa was expiring. They were desperate to find a way to stay together, and they saw in the paper that other couples were doing this. They came to me, and I gave them a licence.

Pat Rocco | Richard Adams (L) and Anthony Sullivan (R)


Sullivan and Adams applied to the Immigration and Naturalisation Service for permanent residency on Sullivan's behalf, on the basis that, thanks to the marriage licence issued to them in Boulder, he was the spouse of a citizen.

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.

But they lost, and Australia wouldn't let any gay couples in at the time. In fact, it was forbidden to immigrate to the United States then if you were a homosexual. So they literally had nowhere to go.

I saw Tony a few years ago. He and Richard stayed together for forty years, and had snuck back into the country years before. INS knew they were in California, Tony thought, but didn't do anything about it because they were so embarrassed about the "faggot" letter. They stayed together all those years and they felt that marriage licence really meant that they were married. They based their whole life on that.

In 2012, a few years before the Supreme Court decision, Richard died of cancer. Since then, Tony has applied for a green card for a widower of a U.S. citizen, for widows and widowers. But it's still percolating in the Department of Immigration.

Rorex issued licences to six same-sex couples in all, in addition to an untold number of straight pairs. But not everyone who came to her had the best intentions.

Right in the middle of when I was issuing licences, I was looking out the window of the courthouse one day. I saw these media trucks park outside. There had already been so much media attention, so I thought, What new thing is there today?

"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.'"
 

There was a guy being interviewed, and he had a horse trailer with him. Suddenly, he brought a horse out of the trailer. I looked at that, but it didn't click. And then all of a sudden it did.

Oh my God, I thought. He's going to try to get a licence for his horse.

I tried to call the DA, but I couldn't reach him. I was looking through the Colorado statutes with my deputy, and looking again at the marriage code. I quickly began to think of a game plan by the time he walked in. He came in and had a speech all prepared: "If a man can marry a man, and a woman can marry a woman, why can't a tired old cowboy like me marry my best friend Dolly?" So I actually started issuing the licence, and I asked him the normal questions—name, address, etcetera.

Eventually we got down to the age of Dolly on the form. He said she was eight years old. So I just laid down my pen and I said, "Oh, I'm very sorry, but I can't issue a licence. She's too young, and you'll need parental permission."

At that time in Boulder, when tensions were running high, it brought a sense of levity to the situation. But over the years, a lot of legislators across the country who opposed marriage equality always brought up the issue of bestiality and the gay community. Whether or not they knew or remembered that incident, they talked about "a man tried to marry his horse" or whatever. It became a legend used to oppose same-sex marriage. But in retrospect, I think it also began to make people think, Wait a minute, we aren't talking about animals here. We are talking about human beings.

Rorex ruffled feathers at the highest levels of Colorado politics, and she began to feel the pressure.

The state legislature did not want to touch the issue with a ten-foot pole. They were furious at me for bringing it up. So they asked the state attorney general for an opinion, and he issued a statement that said that even if the law didn't specify man and woman, that was the intent when the law was crafted. And he said that my issuing licences might be misleading people into thinking they had more rights than they did. He did not order me to stop—he never did. But his statement was such that maybe I should stop, and at that time our district attorney [in Boulder] said that to the people of Colorado, he might have a greater legal voice. So the DA said I should stop, and that's when I did.

Emily Berl | Clela Rorex at her home in Colorado, June 2016.


I always stood by my actions. I never backed away from them. But I did not see out my term in office, because I knew I was going to get recalled. I knew I would not get reelected. So I resigned after two and a half years.

"I always stood by my actions. I never backed away from them."
 

Rorex says her time at the Boulder county clerk's office "followed" her, and that she knows there were jobs she did not get because of it. But she also made new friends, and she began to grow into her role as an ally about ten years ago. Now she gives speeches, mostly to schools, focusing on young people in the LGBT community. For her efforts, local LGBT organisation Out Boulder honoured her in 2012 with the inaugural Clela Rorex Allies in Action Award.

As for Tony Sullivan, the Australian man who applied for a compassionate green card after his spouse's death: The INS granted him one last month. The date of issue is April 21, 2016, forty-one years to the day since Clela Rorex issued him and Richard Adams a marriage licence. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services issued an apology: Director León Rodriguez wrote, "This agency should never treat any individual with the disrespect shown toward you and Mr. Adams. You have my sincerest apology for the years of hurt caused by the deeply offensive and hateful language used in the November 24, 1975, decision, and my deepest condolences on your loss." Their story has been turned into a documentary, titled Limited Partnership, available now on Netflix.

From: Esquire US.