I know, I know. Gay marriage is so passé now. Eleven states shot it down in 2004, and another seven shot it down in 2006. A bunch of them even said no to civil unions. Obviously, as we already knew from the polls long before these referenda and amendments made it to the ballot, the majority of Americans think gay marriage is a bad idea. And a lot of them are Democrats.
So why bring up this divisive issue again in yet another election year? We had our fling with gay marriage, right? The results were sour, so let's get back to the real business of the Democratic Party. Some day, we're told, in a decade or two or three – as the older generation (my generation) dies off – the nation can reconsider whether gays and lesbians should have the same rights as other human beings, but right now, give it a rest, eh?
Astonishing how fast those decades fly by. Indeed, it was just 33 years ago today that Clela Rorex, the county clerk in Boulder, Colorado, and a friend of mine, issued the nation's first-ever license for a gay marriage.
During the following month Rorex would issue five more licenses to gay and lesbian couples.
Not surprisingly, she caught a barrage of brimstone from clergy and editorialists and politicians and the majority of citizens. No surprise since less than a year earlier, Boulder had engaged in an electoral and media civil war because the city council had passed one of the country's first ordinances protecting gays from discrimination. A referendum had reversed the law a few months later and a young city councilman had been recalled and replaced after an election campaign that was just short of tar and feathers.
So what could Rorex have been thinking?
At the time, many of us who had supported the repealed gay rights ordinance – the same kind that hundreds of communities from Corvallis to Cape Cod (as well as Boulder) now enforce – were arguing that any fresh attempt to push something having to do with gay equality would fail and possibly give the right wing another cudgel with which to undermine left and liberal goals in other arenas. We were arguing, basically, that gays should wait and "go slow," just as some liberals had argued that black people should do 20 years earlier.
In Rorex's office, however, was a gay man, Deputy County Clerk N. Patrick Prince, who raised questions with her about the state's marriage law. He and his lover got one of the six licenses Rorex issued after obtaining a memo from the district attorney's office saying that doing so wasn't specifically prohibited by Colorado law.
"There is no statutory law prohibiting the issuance of a license, probably because the situation was simply not contemplated in the past by our legislature. The case law is strongly on the side of the public official that refuses to issue a marriage license in these situations, and a public official could not be prosecuted for violation of any criminal law by such marriage licensing," the assistant D.A. wrote. The law did not permit marriage between close blood relations, nor bigamy, but it didn't say anything about the sex of the partners, he said.
So Rorex started issuing licenses, telling clerks to cross out "man" and "woman" on the documents and insert "person."
It didn't take long for the Colorado Attorney General to step in with a legal opinion calling same-sex licenses misleading because they falsely suggested that recipients had obtained all the rights the state afforded to husband and wife. The Boulder District Attorney deferred and the licenses became void. The matter was never contested in court.
Meanwhile, some license foes who weren't busy writing Rorex hate mail and looking for rope were having themselves a good laugh.
On April 15, Roswell "Ros" Howard arrived with his mare, Dolly, at Rorex's office ...
... flanked by reporters and demanded, "If a boy can marry a boy and a girl can marry a girl, why can't a lonesome old cowboy get hitched to his favorite saddle mare?" He then asked Rorex to marry him and his horse. Rorex hardly missed a beat. She denied Howard's application, explaining the 8-year-old Dolly was too young to get hitched without her parents' written consent.
Now 64, Clela Rorex today is the treasurer and law office administrator for one of my favorite organizations, the Boulder-based Native American Rights Fund. About her actions 33 years ago, she's changed her mind, she told me three years ago in a phone interview:
"If I had the opportunity to do it over again, I would do it with more conviction this time. Then I knew nothing about gay and lesbian relationships. I only knew one gay man. But I knew it was the right thing to do.
"My only regret in this is that people with long-term loving relationships still can't get married. I now know several gay and lesbian couples who have been together for years. They reaffirm to me that this is an issue of human rights, civil rights. All the fanatical hatemongering about it is frightening and infuriating."
Indeed. My ex-wife and her long-time companion live just a few blocks from Rorex. A physician’s assistant and an acupuncturist, they've been together for 19 years, one year longer than my current wife and I have been married. These two women who deeply love each other and have shown the kind of commitment that the right-wanker hate tribe claims is crucial to being an acceptable human being still can't get married, can't file a joint tax statement, can't even be certain that in the future some miscreant bureaucrat will, in perfect legality, keep one of them from visiting the other in the hospital should they wind up so confined.
One couple who married after getting a license from Rorex remains together today. Their Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals case, Adams v. Howerton provides another example of why gay marriage isn't some frivolous tangent in the culture war. In a letter they wrote in 2004 to a Boulder paper:
"One of the problems that many of our own community have had when dealing with the issue of same-sex marriage is that it goes beyond the battle for sex rights.
It is a battle about love and many of our own community as a result of the environment brought about by the insidious accumulative effects of homophobic oppression are cynical and reactionary when it comes to Love. Love is an extraordinarily powerful force. That is why the enemies of Lesbian and Gay Liberation do not want to see our relationships recognized. Once Same-Sex Love is recognized the strength of the opposition will begin to wither away. It is inevitable."
Thirty-three years have passed since those first licenses were issued, then rescinded. Some say it will take another 33, at least, before the majority of Americans see the light. I wish I could believe they're wrong. I wish that in five or 10 more years, most Americans would look back on the reluctance to extend equal rights to gays – including marriage rights – as another unfortunate discrimination consigned to the benighted past, thus proving once again America's wonderful ability to perpetually transform itself by applying its earliest ideals for a limited part of the population to all human beings.
Throughout our history, on one side have been those who say that tradition, scientific studies, common-sense, public order and divine revelation all dictate that this or that second-class group should remain unequal, not quite legally human, and therefore subject to laws that nobody else is, unshielded by laws that everybody else is. Black people,, women, Indians, immigrants have all found themselves legally assigned to these "other" categories. Other than fully American, other than fully a person.
On the opposite side have been two groups: gradualists and maximalists. Every civil rights movement – every social movement in America – has included a tug-of-war between them.
Almost always, the gradualists concede that they agree with the maximalists in principle: They know there's no such thing as half-equal, you either are, or you aren't. But politics is the art of the possible, the gradualists say, and reform takes time.
I'm a maximalist, but who can disagree with the gradualists? They've got the referenda of 2004 and 2006 to prove their case. Success in this matter will be either gradual or not at all.
But to those – both left, right and center – who think this issue will go away, forget it. It can't go away. Because it's not about gay marriage. It's about civil rights. Equal rights. Everybody's rights. Not a luxury. Not an add-on. Bedrock, bottom-line, fundamental. That was so when Clela Rorex issued those licenses 33 years ago, and it still is today.