Clela Rorex, who made headlines in 1975 when, as the Boulder County clerk in Colorado, she issued a marriage license to a gay couple, one of the first to do so in the nation, died on Sunday at a hospice center in Longmont, Colo. She was 78.
Her son Scott Poston said the cause was complications of an infection.
Colorado’s governor, Jared Polis, who is gay, was among those paying tribute to Ms. Rorex.
“So many families, including First Gentleman Marlon Reis and I, are grateful for the visionary leadership of Clela Rorex,” he wrote on Facebook, calling her a woman “ahead of her time.”
Ms. Rorex had been in the clerk’s post for only a few months when she issued the groundbreaking license, a first for Colorado and one of the first in the nation. (Two men had been issued a license earlier in Arizona, but it was quickly revoked.) She was elected the previous November.
Ms. Rorex was president of the Boulder chapter of the National Organization for Women, and her distinctive license plate “MS1” — at a time when the honorific “Ms.” was still generating controversy — attracted notice. On March 14, 1975, The Greeley Daily Tribune in Colorado ran a photograph of the back of the car, which also sported a “Yes! Equal Rights” bumper sticker.
“Boulder County Clerk Clela Rorex leaves no doubt about her sentiments on the women’s movement,” the caption read.
Mr. Poston said that when, just days later, on March 26, David McCord and David Zamora came to her seeking a marriage license, granting it was more an affirmation of her personal beliefs than an attempt to make national news.
“She didn’t do it to make a statement or create an uproar,” he said in a phone interview. “She just did it because she realized she would have an ideological contradiction if she didn’t believe in discrimination but discriminated against these men.”
She had some legal support — she had received an opinion from William C. Wise, the county’s assistant district attorney, who said that a same-sex marriage did not appear to be specifically prohibited by state law. In early April she granted a marriage license to two women, again making news.
She granted several other licenses to gay couples — “Colorado has become a mini‐Nevada for homosexual couples,” The New York Times said at the time — before the state attorney general, J.D. MacFarlane, contradicted Mr. Wise with an opinion that marriages had to be between a man and a woman.
That led Ms. Rorex to stop issuing same-sex licenses, but her actions had already made her a hero in the gay-rights movement, as well as a target.
“I was just so inundated with mostly hate mail during that time period,” she told The Associated Press in 2004. “It was really incredible the letters I got.”
She didn’t remain clerk for long. Her son said a romance with the man who became her second husband took her to California in 1977. And, she told NPR in 2015, the year the Supreme Court ruled that gay couples had a right to marry, she probably wouldn’t have been re-elected anyway given the amount of vitriol hurled at her. But she had no regrets about issuing those historic licenses.
“I just was this young woman in this place at this point in time,” she said, “and thank goodness I made that decision, because it would be so hard for me to look myself in the mirror today if I had not made the decision then.”
Clela Ann Rorex was born on July 23, 1943, in Denver and grew up in Steamboat Springs, Colo. She was adopted at a young age by Ruby Rorex, a teacher and dance instructor, and Cecil Rorex, who after working in the mining industry became clerk of Routt County, Colo., Mr. Poston said. Cecil Rorex, he said, had lost a leg, which Mr. Poston thought made his mother particularly sympathetic to those who have to overcome barriers in life, whether physical or institutional.
Ms. Rorex earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Colorado and later, in the 1980s, a second degree, in legal administration, at the University of Denver. Her decision to run for county clerk was born out of anger, she said. She had attended a Democratic Party meeting where the discussion turned to finding a candidate to run against the woman being fielded by the Republicans. Everyone — except Ms. Rorex — thought the Democratic candidate needed to be a man. She complained about such sexism to friends, who told her that she should run herself.
She did, and won. And “the two Daves,” as she called the first gay couple to come to her for a license, turned up a few months after she took office. They had tried to get a license in Colorado Springs, but, Ms. Rorex told the news site Westword in 2014, the clerk there told them: “I don’t do that here. Go to Boulder. They do that type of thing there” — something the Colorado Springs clerk apparently thought because Boulder had recently been embroiled in a debate over housing discrimination against gay people.
Issuing the licenses not only brought Ms. Rorex hateful mail and phone calls, she said, but also criticism from some Democratic state legislators. “They did not want to have to address the issue,” she said, “so they were trying like crazy to avoid it.”
Though she stopped issuing licenses after the state attorney general’s opinion, “the six licenses she issued were never invalidated,” a historical plaque installed at the Boulder courthouse in 2018 says.
Ms. Rorex, who lived in Longmont, was married and divorced three times. In addition to her son Scott, she is survived by another son, Aron Rorex, and a daughter, Linda Vat.
After earning her second college degree, Mr. Poston said, Ms. Rorex worked for several organizations, including the Native American Rights Fund.
“She was pretty motivated to work on inequality issues for all sorts of people,” he said.
“I would say pragmatism was her driving philosophy,” he added, something reflected in what Ms. Rorex told Westword about her response once she received that initial opinion from the district attorney’s office.
“To me, it was pretty clear,” she said. “It’s not against the law. They’re asking for this right. Who am I to say otherwise? I issued a license. That was how it started.”