Massachusetts was the first state to recognize the freedom to marry (2004) and Vermont was the first to offer civil unions (2000). But the first same-sex marriage licenses date back to the 1970s.
Boulder County, Colo., Clerk Clela Rorex was the first government official to intentionally issue a license to a same-sex couple all the way back in 1975. She had only been on the job a few weeks when two men arrived, asking for a marriage license so that they could jointly own some property. Clela was taken aback — she'd never heard of such a thing. But after some consideration, she realized that recognizing the relationship ws the right thing to do, and that there was nothing standing in her way.
All told, Clela issued licenses to six same-sex couples before the state forced her to stop. Not long afterwards, she was forced to resign under intense political pressure. After that, she had difficulty finding a job. Her brave stand made many employers reluctant to hire her.
Eventually, she went to work for a civil rights organization and remained there for the rest of her career. Boulder's Clela Rorex Allies in Action Award is named for her, a fact that she's a bit sheepish and modest about.
But although Rorex was the first official to intentionally issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple, there was one couple who obtained a license a few years earlier. Their names were Richard Baker and James Michael McConnell, and they were able to be married briefly thanks to some subterfuge.
Above: Michael McConnell and Jack Baker interviewed by Esme Murphy
Before applying for a license, Baker changed his name to "Pat Lyn McConnell." County officials in Minnesota assumed that he was a woman and issued a marriage license to what they thought was a heterosexual couple. When it was revealed that Baker and McConnell were both men, those officials declared the license invalid. As recently as 2006, federal courts have refused to recognize the 1971 marriage license, but finally, on February 16, 2019, the Social Security Administration sent the couple a letter confirming that their marriage was legal and that they were both indeed entitled to each other’s spousal benefits.
Other activists tried but failed to obtain licenses in similar ways. I wrote about those attempts, along with Rorex's brave stand and the punishing fallout, in my book, Defining Marriage: Voices From a Forty-Year Labor of Love. The book is available on Amazon; it's also available in audio version as a podcast, with one new chapter per week.
I spoke with Rorex for the podcast back in 2015, and asked if she felt vindicated by marriage being legalized coast to coast. "I don't feel vindicated," she told me, "but I feel validated." You can hear more about Rorex's story and the early marriage pioneers on that episode (Chapter 2: To Be Let In, Not Just Left Alone) by subscribing to the podcast over at DefiningMarriage.com.