Honouring a Rogue Activist: William Wise (1937-2016)

In March 1975, the Boulder District Attorney’s Office received a request from Boulder County Clerk and Recorder Clela Rorex, to provide legal assistance regarding the issuing of marriage licenses to same-sex couples.  Having been visited by two men wishing to get married, Rorex wanted to ensure that she would not be violating any state statute in issuing the couple a license.  Assistant District Attorney William Wise, having no legal precedent upon which to rely, took up the task of interpreting Colorado’s marriage statute.   

Earlier this year, in an interview with Wise, I mentioned that he had great latitude in his role within the District Attorney’s Office to take an ideological position on this question that could have, effectively, ended any issuing of same-sex marriage licenses before it even started.  

In response, he said, “Frankly, I think that whoever drew up that marriage statute just never considered male-male or female-female.  The statute just does not say – it just talks about a union.  And, actually, the way it was written, I don’t think that anyone could have interpreted that there was an implication of marriage between a man and a woman solely.  I read the statute and came to the conclusion that anyone should come to – it was ambiguous.”

As a result of his interpretation, Wise delivered a memo to the Clerk and Recorder’s Office on March 25, 1975, advising that Colorado state law neither permits, nor denies, marriages between same-sex couples.  More specifically, state law did not explicitly limit marriage to a union between one man and one woman. As such, Rorex would be legally free to issue same-sex marriage licenses out of her office.

In so advising, Wise provided the legal avenue for Clela Rorex to issue the country’s first same-sex marriage licenses in 1975 – six in total.  These licenses would crack open the door to marriage equality that would eventually be realized by the United States Supreme Court in June 2015 – forty years later.  

In time, Rorex would reminisce that “without Bill’s ability to read the law from an unbiased perspective, I would never have been able to make the decision I did.”  

I closed my interview with Wise, saying, “I’m trying to imagine, and let’s just say what it is – a straight white guy in the 1970s gets this request.  In some respects, you started this.”

He replied, “Well, I mean, gay – so the fuck what?  Who was going to get hurt?”

William Wise passed away on November 29th of this year – one day shy of his 79th birthday.  Here, we, the Rogue Activist team, recognize and honor his early role in the march for marriage equality.

William Wise

May he rest in peace.

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