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Clela Rorex, the clerk who issued some of the 1st same sex marriage licenses, dies

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

An unlikely hero of the early struggle for same-sex marriage has died. Clela Rorex was 78 years old. Noel Black, host of the podcast "Lost Highways" from History Colorado, has this remembrance.

NOEL BLACK, BYLINE: She was only 31 years old when Clela Rorex was elected as the Boulder County clerk in 1975. Though her father had held the same position in Steamboat Springs, Colo., where she grew up, she had no real experience. But she was a feminist and ready to shake things up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLELA ROREX: I was an anomaly. I was a single mother. I had long hair. I wore miniskirts. I had never campaigned in my life. It terrified me. We didn't know how to run a campaign.

BLACK: But Boulder was becoming a center for counterculture in the West, and young progressive voters helped elect her. Even she was surprised, though, when two months after she took office, two men from Colorado Springs requested a marriage license.

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ROREX: I went in to talk to them, listened to their story, why they wanted to. And that was when I said, I don't know if I can do that, but I will find out.

BLACK: This was a question that America hadn't yet reckoned with, and Rorex had never met any out gay or lesbian people before. She didn't know if she could legally do it. The law was unclear.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROREX: The way it was written did not specify that marriage had to be between a man and a woman.

BLACK: After talking to the assistant DA and thinking about it for two days, she decided to do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROREX: And I issued the license based on the fact that I believed that it would be inequitable if I did not. Because, as a woman, I was looking for equality. And how could I say to somebody else, no, you don't get a turn?

BLACK: Clela Rorex wasn't the first to issue a same-sex marriage license, but she was the first to call the media when she did, and she was shocked by the backlash and vitriol that followed. A local cowboy named Ros Howard even brought his horse, Dolly, to the courthouse and demanded a marriage license. The implication was that same-sex marriage was a slippery slope to bestiality. The gimmick stunned Rorex.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROREX: I had no idea what I was going to say until he was standing in front of me, and I was asking this question and that question off the marriage license and got to the age thing and asked Dolly's age. And that's when he said 8.

BLACK: Rorex had to think quick. She remembered that anyone younger than 14 was too young to get married - even a horse.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROREX: Somehow had the presence of mind to lay down my pen and say, well, I'm sorry, but Dolly is underage - can't have a license without parental permission.

BLACK: The stunt was a sensation. It even made "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON")

JOHNNY CARSON: You know, this could be the first time that a husband will ride his wife to the wedding reception.

BLACK: Clela only issued six same-sex marriage licenses that spring of 1975. The state attorney general shut her down after that. But one of those marriages lasted - that of Tony Sullivan and Richard Adams. The couple fought for more than three decades for legal recognition of their marriage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TONY SULLIVAN: I honestly believe what Clela did and what we did is why we have marriage equality today.

BLACK: Tony Sullivan says this is Clela Rorex's true legacy.

For NPR News, I'm Noel Black in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.