Colorado’s gay marriage fight echoes drama in 1975
BOULDER — Nearly 40 years ago, a newly elected, miniskirt-wearing feminist in Colorado stumbled into history when a gay couple denied a marriage license sought her help instead.
While the college town of Boulder has a liberal reputation now, it was deeply divided over gay rights in 1975, and few, including Clela Rorex, had thought about same-sex couples marrying. Seeing a parallel with the women’s movement and finding nothing in the law to prevent it, the 31-year-old county clerk agreed and granted a total of six licenses to gay couples before the state’s attorney general at the time ordered her to stop.
Now, as the courts across the U.S. rule in support of gay marriage, a clerk in the very same county finds herself in a similar position.
Hillary Hall has issued more than 100 marriage licenses to same-sex couples ever since a federal appeals court based in Denver found that states cannot ban gay marriage last month. That ruling was put on hold pending an appeal, and Colorado’s gay marriage ban, passed by voters in 2006, remains on the books.
She is being sued by state Attorney General John Suthers, who says the licenses are invalid because marriage must be between a man and a woman, and she hasn’t gotten tremendous support for her view, at least in official circles. Gov. John Hickenlooper, a fellow Democrat, says same-sex marriages should wait until the U.S. Supreme Court settles the question, though gay state lawmakers have called for an immediate overturning of Colorado’s ban.
A judge will hear the lawsuit against Hall on Wednesday.
Like Rorex decades before her, Hall believes she shouldn’t refuse gay couples the right to marry. Unlike in 1975 though, Hall is bolstered by over 20 federal court rulings that have found same-sex marriage bans to be unconstitutional.
Hall declined to be interviewed, citing work to wrap up last month’s primary election. But in a written statement, she said history is proving that Rorex was ahead of her time, though the previous clerk’s actions didn’t influence her decision to start issuing same-sex marriage licenses. Hall said she felt she had a legal and moral obligation to act after appeals court ruling.
“You cannot stay a fundamental right,” said Hall, 48.
In 1975, Rorex said she had little support from fellow Democrats or even the gay community, let alone the public, so she didn’t challenge the attorney general. A recall effort was launched against Rorex, a single mother and University of Colorado graduate student. Suffering from chronic migraines and dealing with hate mail, she resigned halfway through her term.
“She didn’t get many people who supported her. She was getting laughed out of town,” said Glenda Russell, a psychologist who is working on a book about Colorado’s gay history and lived in Boulder at the time.
Through it all, Rorex tried to keep her sense of humor. When a man applied to marry his horse to make a point, Rorex refused, saying the horse wasn’t of age.
Now 70 and still living in the area, Rorex speaks in schools about being a straight advocate for gays and lesbians. She said is exasperated by the slow pace of change and hopes Hall won’t back down.
“Where is the humanity here? Why do we have to have one more court hearing?” she asked.
Rorex said she made her decision in 1975 out of a sense of fairness but from a bit of distance. Over the years though, as she has gotten to know more gay couples and their children, she has become more convinced that she made the right decision.
Rorex suspects Hall has had the same experience.
Last year, when same-sex civil unions became legal in Colorado, Hall opened her office to couples a minute after midnight. Rorex recalled seeing members of the clerk’s staff crying as couples registered.
“When you’re encountering that face-to-face, you just see,” Rorex said. “It brings it to a personal level.”