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Why Boulder County Courthouse is recognized for its role in LGBTQ history

Many consider the Stonewall riots of 1969 in New York City to be a pivotal moment in LGBTQ history in the U.S. Fewer remember that one of the most significant events that followed happened a few years later in Boulder, Colorado.

Boulder County Courthouse in 1977

Boulder County Courthouse in 1977

In March of 1975, David Bruce McCord and David Robert Zamor went to the Boulder County Courthouse and asked then County Clerk and Recorder Clela Rorex for a marriage license. They’d traveled from Colorado Springs after the El Paso County Clerk denied them a license. Rorex told them she’d look into it. After a few days she got a memo from William C. Wise, the county’s assistant district attorney, telling her it wasn’t specifically prohibited by Colorado law, and that the Colorado marriage code did not specify that marriage had to be between a man and a woman.

So on March 26, 1975, Clela Rorex became one of the very first American government officials to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple. (A license was issued in Arizona prior to this, but it was later invalidated.) Over the course of a month, clerks at the Boulder County Courthouse issued licenses to five gay couples and one lesbian couple. Rorex instructed the clerks to cross out man and woman on the documents and insert person. Colorado Attorney General J.D. McFarlane eventually ordered her to stop, saying that same-sex licenses were misleading because they falsely suggested that recipients had obtained all the rights the state afforded to husband and wife.

Rorex had only been serving as Boulder County Clerk for a few months. She was president of the Boulder chapter of the National Organization for Women and ran for this office because she was angry that a woman had not held it before. In 1977, following numerous threats because of the licenses, Rorex ultimately resigned and moved to California.

In 1973 the Boulder City Council had approved a sexual orientation anti-discrimination ordinance, but voters overwhelmingly repealed it. It didn’t pass until 1987.

In July 1991, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission recommended adoption of a state law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, and opponents responded with a state  

Amendment, known as No. 2, to the Colorado State Constitution banning laws prohibiting discrimination. It passed on the ballot in 1994, but was struck down as unconstitutional in the U.S. Supreme Court case Romer v. Evans in 1996. On March 21, 2013, Governor John Hickenlooper signed the Civil Unions Bill at the History Colorado Center, allowing same-sex couples to enter into civil unions. The licenses issued by Rorex were never invalidated, foreshadowing the eventual legalization of same-sex marriage by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015.

Earlier this year the Boulder County Courthouse was officially listed in the National Register of Historic Places in order to recognize its significance to LGBTQ history.

Boulder County Courthouse in 1933

Boulder County Courthouse in 1933

Technically, the courthouse was already in the National Register—because of its location in the Downtown Boulder Historic District, registered in 1980. It was built in 1933 in a Works Progress Administration Art Deco style by local architect Glenn Huntington. (The original 1882 courthouse, designed by F.E. Edbrooke, had burned in 1932.) Clela Rorex herself came to the National Register Review Board meeting at which the courthouse nomination was discussed, where she and Out Boulder County representatives spoke movingly about the historic significance of the courthouse to LGBTQ history.

The effort to designate this historic location came from History Colorado’s Preservation Planning Unit and was ultimately completed by State Preservation Planning Manager and National and State Register Coordinator Erika Warzel. The courthouse was identified as part of our Heritage Diversity Initiative to recognize places significant to underrepresented communities, including LGBTQ, women, Asian American/Pacific Islanders, African Americans, Latino-Hispanic and urban Native Americans.

“Our office had done some previous research into what are well known places in LGBTQ history, as a starting point,” Warzel said. “And this certainly came up as one that was very well known, that we could easily pull together to get the ball rolling.”

Also listed in the National Register is the First Unitarian Society of Denver, a church that hosted the marriage ceremony of Anthony Corbett Sullivan and Richard Frank Adams, the fifth couple to receive a license from Rorex, on April 21, 1975.