I was exhausted by the time I arrived home. It was late. Very late.
The day had started early and run long.
I flipped through my daily mail as I shuffled up to the bedroom. My heart stopped for a split second when I noticed the county court logo in the corner of an envelope. I knew what it was before opening it.
How ironic – today of all days.
It was June 26, 2015, and the day had started with a phone call. “It came down. It’s good news. We need you here.”
Good news – could only mean one thing.
The United States Supreme Court had announced its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. Same-sex marriage in the United States was now a constitutional right that could not be denied by any government in the country. Marriage equality was realized. Legally, anyway.
A rally was scheduled for late in the afternoon – in front of the old Boulder County courthouse where the first same-sex marriage licenses in the United States had been issued forty years earlier. Out Boulder, the non-profit LGBT resource center for Boulder County, had prepared this event to celebrate the ruling and highlight Boulder’s unique role in the march toward marriage equality.
In addition to a few local and state politicians, Jean Dubofsky, a former Colorado State Supreme Court Justice was slated to speak. In 1996, she had successfully argued against the constitutionality of Amendment 2, a Colorado state initiative that denied localities the right to protect LGBT individuals, in the landmark United States Supreme Court case Romer v. Evans.
Hillary Hall, the current Boulder County Clerk and Recorder, would also be speaking. In 2014, Hillary had defied the Colorado State Attorney General and issued same-sex marriage licenses to applicant couples. This came after the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals issued its decision in Kitchen v. Herbert, ruling that “same-sex couples have a fundamental federal constitutional right to marriage.”
And, Clela Rorex, a former Boulder County Clerk and Recorder was expected to speak. In 1975, Clela became the first public official in the United States to issue a same-sex marriage license. She would issue six such licenses before acquiescing to overwhelming pressure from Colorado state government and her own Democratic Party.
And, then there was me – a queer rights researcher – speaking last. No pressure.
By the time the rally was scheduled to begin, the courthouse plaza was groaning under the weight of hundreds of people. The general atmosphere was celebratory – families were smiling and laughing; some people were carrying handmade signs; others were introspective as they basked in the warmth of a hard-fought victory.
Each speaker, wielding a megaphone, touched upon the significance of the Court ruling, marking a change in America’s legal approach to same-sex couples. Undoubtedly, this would lead to social changes, as well. And, many wondered where the movement goes next. Some suggested that a number of organizations would become aimless, even defunct, after dedicating their missions to marriage equality. Some predicted that the LGBT+ movement, in general, would immediately pivot to address trans* issues more directly. In the end, though, nobody really knew.
Jean Dubofsky talked about Colorado’s rich history in LGBT+ rights. She also spoke about her uncle who had secretly shared his life with his same-sex partner – and her hope that gay people would no longer need to live in the shadows.
Hillary Hall reminded us that love is an incredible power that can be used to make the world a better place if we lead with our hearts.
And, then Clela Rorex, standing in front of the office window where forty years and three months to the day earlier, she had issued the country’s first same-sex marriage license, appealed to our better natures – asking that we refuse to be bystanders in life. She challenged us to confront discrimination when we see it and to always rise to the present occasion.
She also predicted that in the near future, we should expect to see some public officials engaging in petty maneuvers to deny marriage to same-sex couples. Within the month, the world would be introduced to just such an official – Kim Davis.
I had known Clela for a few months. So, I knew that two men had walked into her office in March of 1975 and asked for a marriage license – and she had issued it. I knew that a man had also asked for a license to marry his horse. I knew about the binational same-sex couple that she had issued a license to who were still fighting in federal court for recognition of their marriage. And, I knew that the federal government had written that couple a letter referring to them as “faggots.” I knew there had been a recall effort. And, I knew that Clela resigned before her term ended – effectively ending her political career.
As I watched this woman speaking on the steps of the courthouse where she had, forty years earlier, started the slow march toward marriage equality speak, I realized that this was not an advocate speaking, but a true public servant. This was a woman that believed the role of government in our lives is to treat us each, regardless of age, race, sex, gender, religion, or orientation with dignity and respect.
And, this was a story waiting to be told.
I sat on the edge of my bed staring at my divorce paperwork. Woven throughout the day of celebration had also been a reconciliation of the end of my own marriage.
One year ago, I had lived in another state, finishing my doctorate, married to someone with whom I fully expected to spend the rest of my life. One year ago, the idea of writing a book seemed like a lost dream. One year ago, I had been resigned to living a relatively common life, unchallenged, but also unfulfilled.
As I contemplated the road I had traveled in the previous twelve months, it seemed as if the events of an entire year had played out in this one day. The closing of one door and the opening of another.
Tomorrow, I would begin a new journey – to tell the story of one county clerk in a small mountain town in 1975 who issued the country’s first same-sex marriage licenses.
More links and websites
Obergefell supreme court decision
20 years after Colorado’s Amendment 2 struck down, parallels seen in transgender fight – an article in Daily Camera
Story behind Amendment 2
Romer supreme court decision
Roots of Hillary Hall’s marriage equity stance trace back to youth in Boulder – an article in Daily Camera
How one women married gay couple forty years ago – an article from Esquire
Shawn speaks at same-sex rally in front of the old Boulder County courthouse – video on Youtube
Beyond Marriage: The Case for Full LGBT Equality – an article from Freedom to marry
Hillary Hall speaks at same-sex rally – video on Youtube
Clela Rorex speaks at same-sex rally – video on Youtube
Kentucky Clerk Defies Court on Marriage Licenses for Gay Couples – an article in New York Times
Photo courtesy of K Michelle Johnson – Michelle and Sasha Studios