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40 years ago, a gay couple applied for a marriage license. She approved it.

This is what it's like to be on the right side of history.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court made history when it ruled that gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to marry.

Ever since, getting married has been as simple as heading on down to the local county clerk's office, filling out a bit of paperwork, and picking up your license — or rather, that's how it's supposed to be.

However, as recently as this week, more than two months after the ruling, a Kentucky county clerk has been denying couples marriage licenses on the grounds that it goes against her personal religious beliefs. Even after being rebuked once again by the Supreme Court, she kept fighting on.


It seems like folks like her might be giving clerks a bad name. So instead, let's focus on one of LGBTQ history's unsung heroes: former Boulder County Clerk Clela Rorex.

All photos from Independent Lens.

In 1975, Rorex was serving as the Boulder County clerk when two men asked about applying for a marriage license.

Rorex was just three months into her term as clerk, but she was about to make a judgment call that would ring throughout history.

In 2014, Rorex stopped by StoryCorps to explain her response to the then unusual request.

"The couple came in; they asked for a marriage license. It's the first time I met openly gay people. I said, 'I don't know if I can do this.' At that point, I went to the district attorney, and he said the Colorado marriage code did not specify that marriage had to be between a man and a woman. And therefore I did it."

After issuing that license (and licenses for five other same-sex couples), Rorex faced intense backlash.

As it turns out, the idea of gay folks having the same rights as their straight counterparts didn't fare too well 40 years ago. Shocking, I know.

Her decision to issue a marriage license to the couple got national attention and was featured in the The New York Times.

Rorex received angry letters, newspapers printed harsh articles about her, and people even harassed her family.

"I honestly did not anticipate the degree of hate," says Rorex. "It was threats — people needed to kill me for doing this and that kind of stuff. And I had entire church congregations writing me that it would be Sodom and Gomorrah in the area."

"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 Rorex

Keep in mind that this was the type of treatment a straight woman was receiving simply for following the law to its letter. It's scary — though not entirely surprising — that newspapers seemed content to print things like "the penalty for homosexual acts is death" in its letters to the editor.

Ultimately, and unfortunately, Colorado's attorney general voided the six same-sex marriages.

Even so, there's something to be said about being on the right side of history. Rorex didn't finish her term as clerk, and the marriages ultimately weren't valid in the eyes of the law, but generations to come would prove her right.

"I just was this young woman in this place at this point in time," she says. "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."

For more information about Rorex's moment in the gay rights spotlight, check out this feature by Independent Lens.