Dalila Ali Rajah
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Clela Rorex, First to Issue Marriage License to Gay Couple, Dies at 78

Clela Rorex

Above: Rorex addressing a rally celebrating the Supreme Court's marriage equality decision in 2015.

Clela Rorex, who was a former clerk in Boulder County, Colo., died at age 78.

Rorex died Sunday at a hospice in Longmont, Colo., Boulder’s Daily Camera reports. She had suffered complications from a recent surgery.

In 1975, when she was Boulder County clerk, Rorex received a marriage license application from two men from Colorado Springs who had been denied a license in their home county, El Paso County. Rorex consulted Bill Wise, an assistant district attorney in her county, and he said there was no law against issuing the license, “probably because the situation was simply not contemplated in the past by our legislature,” notes a news release from Out Boulder County. So she granted the men the license the next day.

Word of Rorex’s action spread. Los Angeles residents Anthony Sullivan and Richard Adams heard about her and flew to Boulder so they could get married. Sullivan, who was from Australia, was in a committed relationship with Adams, a U.S. citizen, but the federal government didn’t recognize it, so Sullivan was threatened with deportation. Even after they married, the threat didn’t go away, and they had to leave the country for several years. Still, they were grateful to Rorex, and they became friends with her, Sullivan told The Advocate in 2015.

She issued licenses to a total of six same-sex couples before Colorado Attorney General J.D. MacFarlane stopped her by writing a legal opinion that marriage was limited to male-female couples. She quit her job in 1977 and had some difficulty finding other employment because of her association with gay rights, but she said didn’t regret granting the licenses. A straight woman and feminist, she didn’t know many gay people at the time she issued them, but she didn’t want to be judging others, she explained later. Eventually, she became a full-on ally.

Of Sullivan and Adams, she said in the 2015 Advocate article, “Getting to see how important that marriage license was and the context of their whole life together [has been] extremely meaningful for me. It brought things full circle for me. And I’m just very glad I had that opportunity.”

She volunteered with Out Boulder County, which has an award named for her, and other social justice groups, and she worked as a legal administrator for the Native American Rights Fund.

Her “act of courage changed the course of her life and the course of the lives of countless LGBTQ+ people,” Out Boulder County Executive Director Mardi Moore said in the release. “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.”

Moore called Rorex “a blessing to everyone who knew and loved her” and “the ally I needed before I knew I needed one.”

Not one of the licenses Rorex issued to same-sex couples has even been invalidated, Moore said, and Sullivan eventually got his green card. One county clerk in Minnesota had predated Rorex’s action by granting a license to a male couple in 1971, but in that case one of the men had changed his name to something gender-ambiguous, and the clerk thought they were a male-female couple.

Others paying tribute to Rorex include Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, the first out gay man to be elected governor of any state in the U.S. “Her certification of five 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,” he wrote on Facebook. “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, and the marriage certificates signed by Clela Rorex are currently on display at History Colorado in Denver through the end of this year as part of their ‘Rainbows and Revolutions’ exhibits. So many families, including First Gentleman Marlon Reis and I, are grateful for the visionary leadership of Clela Rorex.”

A celebration of Rorex’s life will be held on her birthday, July 23.

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