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Clela Rorex, who endured death threats after issuing nation’s first same-sex marriage licenses, dies

(Brennan Linsley / Associated Press)

Clela Rorex, a former Colorado county clerk considered a pioneer in the gay rights movement for being the first public official to issue a same-sex marriage license in 1975, has died. She was 78.

Rorex died Sunday of complications from recent surgery at a hospice care facility in Longmont, the Daily Camera reported.

She was a newly elected Boulder County clerk when a gay couple denied a marriage license elsewhere sought her help in March 1975, a time when many politicians were still deeply homophobic. She told the Associated Press in 2014 that she saw a parallel with the growing women’s movement and found nothing in state law preventing same-sex couples from marrying.

The then-31-year-old agreed with the couple and, in the end, issued a total of six licenses to gay couples before Colorado’s attorney general at the time ordered her to stop.

State and federal law didn’t recognize gay marriage at the time. Rorex recalled that she had little public support and that challenging the attorney general held little promise. None of the six licenses she issued were ever revoked or invalidated.

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A recall effort was launched against Rorex, a single mother and University of Colorado graduate student. Suffering from chronic migraines and weary of the hate mail and death threats, she resigned halfway through her term.

Her son, Scott Poston, told the Daily Camera that he was only 8 when his mother was county clerk and that he worried she would be assassinated.

“I look back at her life now and I really admire her,” Poston said. “How many times she walked through the unknown and was a kind of frontier person, breaking down walls.”

Colorado legalized gay marriage in 2014 after a state court and a Denver federal court struck down a 2006 ban enacted by state voters. A 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision recognized the fundamental right nationwide.

Jared Polis, Colorado’s first openly gay governor, paid tribute to Rorex upon learning of her passing.

“Her certification of 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 vs. Hodges in 2015, which legalized marriage equality nationally,” Polis wrote on Facebook.

Glenda Russell, a retired writer and LGTBQ community historian, told the Camera that Rorex faced significant backlash after issuing the first license.

“Nationally at the time, most people didn’t take it too seriously because they didn’t worry about it happening again, but in Boulder, the reaction was forceful and mean-spirited. She got hit with all the homophobia and heterosexism that the LGBTQ community was facing,” Russell said.

In later years, Rorex advocated for gay and lesbian rights, speaking in schools and expressing exasperation with the slow pace of change.

According to Out Boulder County, an LGTBQ advocacy organization, Rorex was born in Denver on July 23, 1943, and earned a bachelor of arts degree at the University of Colorado before running for county clerk and recorder. After resigning as clerk in 1977, she received post-graduate degrees and served as a legal administrator for the Native American Rights Fund.

The county courthouse in Boulder where she issued the licenses is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


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