When former Boulder County Clerk Clela Rorex died this weekend at the age of 78, she left behind a legacy of equality that will resonate in the halls of local history and throughout the world. 

But Rorex didn’t have a social revolution in mind when, having held her hard-won elected position for just a few months, she signed the first same-sex marriage license in the United States on a spring day in 1975. 

“This wasn’t a big political move: ‘Let’s get all the gays married.’ It was an individual decision that there wasn’t any law that said we couldn’t,” says Out Boulder County Executive Director Mardi Moore. “It was the right thing to do, so she did it. She had no idea what waves she was going to create.”

Those waves came fast and hard for Rorex, who soon found herself in the eye of a media firestorm that thrust Boulder County into the national spotlight. For LGBTQ people and early allies in the fight for marriage equality, issuing a license to wed two men named Dave from Colorado Springs made her a hero — but for reactionaries at home and across the country, Rorex swiftly became a target for harassment. 

“You are a shame and disgrace to decent society,” a Baptist pastor from Oklahoma City wrote in a letter to the clerk’s office that summer. Other typed and handwritten notes — collected and partially displayed by the Museum of Boulder as part of its archive collection — lambasted the county clerk as “emotionally sick,” condemning the mother of three to the “deepest regions of Hell.” 

Left: Clela Rorex, who issued the first same-sex marriage license in the United States in 1975. Right: Hate mail from the pastor of Jordan Baptist Church in Oklahoma City. Courtesy: Museum of Boulder

“I had whole church congregations in Longmont writing me letters. I was preached about from the pulpits,” Rorex said in a 2015 interview conducted as part of Boulder Public Library’s Maria Rogers Oral History Program. “One [said] that my issuance of a marriage license to legalize ‘such a disgusting relationship is absolutely nothing but legalization of the putrid act of sodomy.’ And that came up a lot, that I was going to create a Sodom and Gomorrah in Boulder.”

But hatred wasn’t the only response that came pouring in. “We commend your beliefs that no minority should be discriminated against,” two men from New Jersey wrote in a co-signed letter earlier that spring. “We hope that the harassment you have received will soon cease.”

The harassment did not cease. Vicious phone calls became a regular feature in Rorex’s house that year, sometimes answered by her eight-year-old son Scott who found himself on the receiving end of death threats aimed at his mom.

“I was under a lot of stress,” Rorex recalls four decades later in her oral history interview. “I remember having a migraine day after endless day, after endless day. I was really quite sick.”

As local chapter president of the National Organization for Women, the prominent gender equality organization co-founded by Betty Friedan in 1966, Rorex was no stranger to putting herself on the line for a cause she believed in. “It wasn’t safe to be that person in the ‘70s,” Moore says of her high-profile involvement in the feminist cause. “Everybody hated you.”

In fact, it was the experience of advocating for her own personhood that colored her broader thinking on civil rights. By the time Colorado Attorney General J.D. McFarland hit the brakes on Rorex’s early experiment in equality, she had issued six marriage licenses for same-sex couples.

“I was a feminist asking for equal rights, and I felt that very deeply,” Rorex said. “Who was I to deny equal rights to someone else who was asking for the same?”

Clela Rorex at Longmont Pride Festival in 2019. Credit: Christopher Cleary

‘It was about basic human decency.’

The Pride flag on Pearl Street in downtown Boulder was lowered to half-mast following Rorex’s death at a Longmont hospice care facility on June 19, 2022. Her passing came after months of declining health, resulting from complications following surgery due to an unexpected fall.

But even with time to prepare, the loss hit Moore and her team at Out Boulder County with blunt force. “We knew it was coming, but you can never do all the planning you want,” she said. “And when it happens, it’s very different than all the plans.”

Knowing the end was in sight, Moore tried to cajole Rorex into helping put together an obituary during her final months that would capture her deep and lasting impact on the LGBTQ community and the culture writ large. But in keeping with her trademark modesty, Rorex resisted the grand treatment. “I said, ‘Clela, you’re a national figure. Humor me.’”

Rorex eventually agreed, on the condition that the write-up include a solicitation for donations to Out Boulder County, the advocacy organization founded in 1994 where her energy would find a natural home well after her unwitting lunge into history. She served as a longtime volunteer, often greeting visitors with a smile from behind the front desk, and was involved with the nonprofit’s Speaking Out education program for middle and high schoolers.

Clela Rorex (left) and Mardi Moore at the Out Boulder County Garden Party in 2021. Credit: Christopher Cleary

Hours away from going to the funeral home to say a final farewell to her dear friend, colleague and ally, Moore reflected on Rorex’s last week on earth, which she says was marked by her usual kindness and compassion.

When a family she had known for years came to visit her in hospice care to say goodbye, including a transgender child who had been struggling, Rorex used the opportunity to offer one last helping hand to the community whose fight she shared for most of her adult life.

“Clela counseled the parents. She told them they were strong enough to figure out how to do this — that they were good parents. She connected them with resources, and made sure the child was connected with resources,” Moore said. “Clela texted me that night and I told her, ‘Your work is obviously not done. Keep going.’” 

Rorex died the following week. But her final moments underscored the tide-shifting LGBTQ ally’s commitment to those who were so intimately on her heart.

“Her last three acts were making sure that a trans man who just had his baby got a present in the mail, and that another trans person who was homeless got $100 sent to them — and counseling that family,” Moore said. “That’s how she went out: thinking about others.”

When asked what lessons can be learned from Rorex’s allyship, Moore emphasizes the late history maker’s penchant for showing up and putting in the work. “Even if something is scary — if you know it’s the right thing to do, you do it.”

Lastly, Moore highlights the fact that Rorex “didn’t know any gay people” before the pivotal spring of 1975 when she signed that first marriage license for two men from Colorado Springs — 40 years before the Supreme Court would follow suit by making marriage equality the law of the land. “This wasn’t about political activism. It was about basic human decency,” she said. “And she ended up with the LGBTQ community as her family.”

The pride flag on Pearl Street was flown at half mast on June 21, 2022 to honor the death of Clela Rorex, a pioneering former Boulder County clerk who on March 27, 1975, issued the first marriage license in the United States to a gay couple. Credit: John Herrick

Archived work by Jezy Grazy for Boulder Reporting Lab.