We may think that issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples is something that started happening in just the last decade. But that is not the case
Back in 1975, Clela Rorex was a 31-year old woman who had recently been elected county clerk in Boulder, Colorado. One day two men came in and asked her for a marriage license. She had never met any gay people before and was not sure what to do so she went and checked the rule book and discovered that the laws in the state did not specify that marriage had to be between a man and a woman and the district attorney confirmed that. So she issued the license.
Then all hell broke loose.
“I honestly did not anticipate the degree of hate. It was threats — people needed to kill me for doing this, and that kind of stuff. And I had entire church congregations writing me that it would be Sodom and Gomorrah in the area.”
Rorex’s son, about 8 years old at the time, would sometimes pick up the phone when people called. “If he answered, they’d spiel their hatred to him,” Rorex says.
The opponents of same-sex marriage made the same arguments that we hear to today, that same-sex marriage was the slippery slope that would lead to polygamy and people marrying their pets and the end of civilization as we know it.
She says that one day, soon after her action, she looked out of her office window and saw a cowboy come in with a horse trailer. She said she instinctively knew that he was going to ask her for a license to marry his horse. She looked in the rule book and it did not forbid human-horse marriage either so she sat down with the cowboy and started filling in the forms for him and his bride-to-be Dolly.
Then they got to the part in the form that asked for age and the cowboy said that Dolly was eight, as which point Rorex said that the laws forbade marriage at that age without parental approval and that she could not proceed with the license. And that ended that.
Rorex did not complete her term of office and says that she would not have been re-elected if she ran again. But in recalling the events of that time she said something that one often finds with people who instinctively do the right thing without thinking too much about the possible repercussions.
“I just was this young woman in this place at this point in time. And thank goodness I made that decision, because it would be so hard for me to look myself in the mirror today if I had not made the decision then.”
Her story reminded me of other ordinary people whose stories I have told before whose names are not household words but who took a stand for what is right and were willing to withstand the opprobrium heaped on them. People like Mary Hamilton and Ford T. Johnson, Jr. and J. Waties Waring.
So what happened to the Colorado same-sex couple in 1975? She said that the state’s attorney general ordered her to stop issuing licenses and she did so. So she was pleased when the current county clerk in Boulder started issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples but this time a judge refused to order her to stop.
On Thursday, Rorex, now 70, said her decision in 1975 shaped her entire life. She hopes that one day it will seem unremarkable that gay couples can marry.
“It’s always been there in so many ways,” she said. “Relationships I couldn’t have with people who believed otherwise. Jobs I didn’t get. The mockery that was made.
“I knew I made the right decision, but in some ways I grew into the decision as the gay community decided for themselves that they wanted to marry.”
She applauded current Boulder County Clerk Hillary Hall’s decision, after nearly 40 years, to once again issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
“I am truly at a loss for words,” she said. “I am so happy for Hillary that she could start this again and can continue and we don’t have to keep repeating history. It’s such a waste of time and taxpayers’ money for state officials to keep defending this.
“I hope this issue just becomes part of the pattern of society,” she said. “It won’t be something that I or anyone has to keep interviewing about and defending for years to come.”
Ultimately it is ordinary people doing the right thing that results in major lasting social changes. So Rorex can proudly join Hamilton, Johnson, and Waring as being on the right side of history long before the rest of us realized it.