Boulder’s LGBT history has many lessons to teach, including that backlash often follows progress.
By Carol Taylor and Glenda Russell
By now, the fact that Boulder County issued same-sex marriage licenses in 1975 is well known in the national media. Clela Rorex, the Boulder County Clerk at that time, was interviewed on NPR last year. And on June 24, 2016, the first anniversary of the United States Supreme Court decision on gay marriage, Esquire.com ran a piece celebrating Boulder’s early same-sex marriage licenses.
Back in the day, the mood was less than celebratory. In fact, the story of the highly controversial effort to support LGBT rights in Boulder began a couple of years before Rorex’s notable official procedures. In December 1973, the Boulder City Council quietly passed the Human Rights Ordinance, which included protections based on sexual orientation. It was the calm before the storm. At the request of the LGBT community, councilman Penfield Tate II had proposed including sexual orientation in addition to protections based on gender and race.
A humanitarian at heart, Tate proved to be an important ally to the struggle for gay rights in Boulder. But in 1973, homosexuality was still listed as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association. Tate would pay a steep price for his stance, and a divisive controversy would soon set back progress in Boulder.
In January 1974, Tate was selected as mayor of Boulder by his fellow council members. (He remains Boulder’s first and only African-American mayor.) In response to public uproar, however, the sexual-orientation section was removed from the Human Rights Ordinance.
At a public hearing, many angry residents reiterated their opposition to the “sexual preference clause,” as it came to be known. The hearing drew an overflowing crowd of hundreds to council chambers—so many that those who couldn’t get in watched the proceedings on closed-circuit television in the Municipal Building lobby. One woman who spoke said that if the ordinance passed, Boulder would become a “sex deviate mecca” and would be renamed “Lesbian Homoville.” Council placed the section on a special-election ballot in May 7, 1974, to let voters decide.
Mayor Tate received hate mail and death threats. The Daily Camera published letters to the editor that quoted the Bible and referenced Sodom and Gomorrah. One woman wrote that she would like to hand the homosexuals one-way tickets out of Boulder. “The town was foaming,” wrote the Colorado Daily newspaper. Boulder voters soundly defeated the “sexual preference” section.
And they attacked again, with a recall petition for those council members who were in favor of protecting gay rights: Tate, Tim Fuller, Ruth Correll, Janet Roberts and Karen Paget. “Sink the African Queen,” read a poster directed at Mayor Tate.
A technicality protected Correll, Roberts and Paget from the recall effort, and Tate narrowly escaped it.
Councilman Tim Fuller, however, was recalled from office in September 1974. Fuller, a gay man who was not yet publicly out, left Boulder. Tate lost his reelection bid the following year and would never hold an elected office again. It seemed that Boulder was still a very conservative place.
Nevertheless, Boulder was gaining a liberal reputation among outsiders. In 1975, two young men arrived at the El Paso County Clerk’s office for a marriage license. The clerk denied the request, but suggested they try Boulder. Clela Rorex, a fresh-faced young feminist, was only months into her elected position as Boulder County Clerk when the two men came to her office asking for a marriage license. William Wise, Rorex’s legal advisor, was in favor of proceeding. After scouring documents for any rules that might bar her from carrying out the request—and finding none—Rorex issued Boulder County’s first same-sex marriage license on March 26, 1975.
‘Deviates’ and ‘Weirdos’
The story was front page in the Daily Camera and then became national news. Johnny Carson got some laughs on The Tonight Show when he mentioned the wacky town in Colorado that was handing out marriage license to “homosexuals.” As word spread, five other same-sex couples received licenses before the Colorado Attorney General halted the process.
Hate letters poured into Rorex’s office. She faced insults, hundreds of obscene telephone diatribes and death threats. Letters to the Daily Camera again referred to the Bible and Sodom and Gomorrah. One Boulder pastor wrote, “Boulder has enough ‘freaky’ things taking place without your adding to the problem by issuing a marriage license to two homosexuals.”
A Camera editorial stated, “It is sad and repugnant to have to publish information of this kind. … The unsavory publicity about Boulder and the damaging effects on its reputation do not reflect the true character of our community. The deviates, weirdos, drones and revolutionaries are in the rank minority.”
Wise, Rorex’s legal advisor, was also a target. There was again talk of a recall. In the wake of the controversy, Rorex moved to California to get married, and never held elected office again. Once more, a powerful ally to the struggle for LGBT rights in Boulder was thwarted.
Boulder Voters Begin to Turn Around
After seeing the hateful reactions to the ordinance amendment and the marriage licenses, many LGBT residents chose to hide their sexual orientation from the public, fearing retribution. LGBT people felt vulnerable and unprotected in Boulder. Through most of the 1980s, they lacked protections against discrimination. In the early 1980s, they began a grassroots effort to care for those who became infected with HIV/AIDS. Supportive allies in the city and county, such as Boulder County Public Health, eventually joined in to help them.
In 1987, a group of young lesbians tried unsuccessfully to enlist a council member to introduce a new amendment to include sexual orientation in the Human Rights Ordinance. (Aspen, in 1977, had became the first Colorado city to pass such a measure.) A few council members lent verbal support, but none was willing to sponsor the amendment before council.
The activists’ group then collected signatures to force a referendum. Enough Boulder voters had changed their minds that the amendment passed—though by fewer than 300 votes. The law made it illegal to discriminate in employment, housing and public accommodation on the basis of a person’s sexual orientation.
A few years later, Boulder voters took a stronger stand for the LGBT community, rejecting the 1992 anti-gay state ballot measure known as Amendment 2 by a wide margin. The rest of the state’s voters were not on board, and Amendment 2—which effectively made discrimination against LGBT people legal—passed by 53 percent in a statewide vote.
The election sent shockwaves near and far. LGBT Coloradans were hurt, angry and fearful. Colorado earned the moniker “the Hate State.”
Amendment 2 was fought all the way to the United States Supreme Court, where Boulder attorney Jean Dubofsky argued the case. Dubofsky, an ally to the LGBT community, became one of the most respected gay-rights attorneys in the nation. The 1996 decision to overturn Amendment 2 was a landmark: the first time a Supreme Court decision referred to LGBT people in honorable and humane terms.
Over time, Boulder County’s LGBT community won other victories—like the coverage of transgender teachers by the Boulder Valley School Board’s anti-discrimination policies, and the creation of a domestic-partnership registry long before marriage equality became the law of the land. Most of these changes relied on the combined efforts of LGBT activists and their allies.
Boulder’s LGBT history has many lessons to teach, including that backlash often follows progress. If Boulder is true to its past, future progress will rely on LGBT people and allies alike.