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A conversation with Rick Chavez Zbur: it’s about service to others

“In order to improve the lives of LGBTQ people, we need to focus on all the vulnerable communities that we’re a part of”

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Rick Chavez Zbur (center) (Photo Credit: Lindsay Melanie Photography)

LOS ANGELES – Rick Chavez Zbur has left Equality California, the nation’s largest statewide LGBTQ+ civil rights organization, much different than he found it. The group has quadrupled in size, been at the forefront of passing some of the most progressive LGBTQ+ rights bills in the country and taking on the Trump administration.

Earlier this month he passed the reins over to a new leadership team led by Tony Hoang who succeeded him as Executive Director on October 16, 2021.  

Zbur is proud of his work at Equality California. From passing legislation that made PrEP and Pap available to challenging the Trump administration’s trans military ban, he was upfront and center for it all — championing social justice for the whole LGBTQ+ community, even when there were questions about if that model would work. 

“Will your membership and your base continue supporting an organization that has much more of a social justice mission?” Zbur recalls hearing when he took over Equality California in 2014. 

He tells the Blade he thinks the stereotypes and misperceptions about the LGBTQ+ community being primarily white and affluent led to the skepticism. But “that’s not the case,” he said. “Our community supports equality, and everyone understands that in order to improve the lives of LGBTQ people, we need to focus on all the vulnerable communities that we’re a part of.”

Now, Zbur is ready for a new challenge: running for Assembly District 50. The death of his sister Jackie, who lost her three year battle with ALS in September 2020, was at the forefront of his decision. He recalls his sister sitting him down to make him promise he would try to find some way of doing something in public service. 

“Since Jackie passed, I’ve thought long and hard about the next phase of my life — how I can make the greatest impact on the toughest issues our communities face: healthcare, the environment, civil rights and economic inequality,” he writes on his campaign website

One of the most significant factors contributing to his decision was watching his sister’s struggle financially after her diagnosis. 

“By the time she got ill, she had saved up enough to put down a down payment on a very modest two bedroom condo and was starting to save for her retirement,” said Zbur. “And then she got sick. When that happened, she couldn’t work anymore, so she quickly got on Social Security disability, which was $2,100 a month. — it was barely enough to pay her mortgage. She quickly spent down her savings, and that’s when I started helping her.”

“I was, luckily, someone with great privilege and had those years of savings from when I was at Latham & Watkins as an attorney, but what do what do average people do when they’re in similar circumstances, if they don’t have the resources themselves or someone in their family, they can sort of step up?” he said. “That’s part of the reason why we have so many people in wheelchairs that are sitting out on the streets.”

Since he was a child, Zbur has been interested in politics, handing out literature at polling places with his father when he was as young as 10 years old. “I remember watching the 1968 Democratic convention as a kid and just being glued to the tube,” he said. “I always thought that I would do something in government somehow.” 

How he would come to work in politics was less clear, however. Zbur grew up in a rural farming community in New Mexico. His father, Richard Thomas Zbur, dropped out of high school to support his family. He would later join the Air Force and serve in the Korean War before moving to New Mexico. Zbur’s mother, Erlinda Chavez, came from poor farmers who lived in the Rio Grande Valley for generations. 

His father attended college in New Mexico and graduate school in Utah, largely thanks to the GI bill. Zbur and his family ended up moving back to New Mexico to care for his aging grandparents. The farm and parents taught him the values of hard work — values he learned well as he became the first person in his small hometown to attend an Ivy League university.

“I mean, they didn’t even administer the ACT or the SAT because there were not enough kids in my graduating class,” he said. 

Growing up in rural New Mexico also brought its fair share of problems. “I think I knew back in my bones that I was probably gay,” said Zbur. “The farm community was really oppressive — you couldn’t admit that you were gay.”

“I wanted to get out,” he said. 

He wouldn’t start to reckon with the fact he was gay until law school. “I just wouldn’t even let myself think about it because of my background, coming from this little farm community,” he said. “It was just something that was viewed with such a stigma that I wouldn’t even let myself go there. But as I started getting older, I started grappling with it. I had my first relationship, and I told my sister and a few friends.”

In realizing he was gay, he also realized there was not a clear path forward in government. “Other than Harvey Milk, who seemed really far away, no one in the country could run and win as an openly gay person.”

After graduating from Yale and Harvard Law School, Rick moved to Los Angeles and joined Latham & Watkins, one of the nation’s most respected law firms. He stayed for over 25 years, becoming one of California’s leading environmental and government law attorneys. He didn’t think much about politics much during his first few years at the firm — that was until the AIDS epidemic. 

“I was just angry about it,” said Zbur. ” And I was a relatively idealistic, unsophisticated, young person, and I decided that I was going to try to take my Congressman out.”

He lost the race, not realizing how difficult it would be to defeat a sitting incumbent, but he did win the Democratic primary. “I decided that I tried the government service thing, and now I was going to go back and just really try to contribute through the organizations that I cared about,” he said. 

Since then, Zbur says he has learned plenty of lessons and feels more than ready to serve the people of Assembly District 50.

“It’ll be an honor and a privilege to be able to serve the community in this capacity,” he said. “Should I have the privilege of being elected.”

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LGBTQ journalist Chuck Colbert died: reported on Catholic sexual abuse

“Chuck was extraordinarily principled and helpful, especially when addressing issues related to the LGBTQ community and the Catholic Church”

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National LGBTQ Task Force Communications Director Cathy Renna (L) with journalist Chuck Colbert (Photo courtesy of Cathy Renna)

By Karen Ocamb | WEST HOLLYOOD – Chuck Colbert had a touch of old Cary Grant in him — dashing and debonair in his tuxedo at swank LGBTQ events. But he was also deeply humble and bursting with joy from his lifelong devotion to the core beliefs of the Catholic Church.

His journalistic discipline controlling his personal anguish over the proclamations about homosexuality enabled him as an out gay man to report professionally on the sex abuse scandals that rocked the Catholic Church in the early 2000s.

As a regular freelance contributor to the National Catholic Reporter and other media outlets, Chuck debunked tirades against gays and often underscored how girls and young women had been raped and abused by priests and church officials, too. 

I thought about this a lot when I heard that Chuck had died on June 30. He was 67. 

I was shocked by his sudden passing and how long it took to find out he had died. I met him decades ago through the National Gay and Lesbian Journalists Association. Why did it take a month and a half for news of his passing to spread? 

Chuck’s friend Karen Allshouse posted news on his Facebook page:  “I’ve learned that while visiting in Johnstown [Pennsylvania] he developed a serious medical issue (involving his esophagus reportedly) and he needed to be transferred to a higher level of medical care and was transferred to a Pittsburgh hospital. Respiratory complications developed and he died. For those who are concerned about his mom – a former high school teacher of his (English) accompanied his mom to the cemetery for the committal service.”

I considered Chuck a loving friend and a journalistic colleague but I realized I actually knew little about him. Our friendship ranged from email exchanges to quick chats at events to deep conversations about religion, including the influence of Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ.

If anyone sought to imitate Christ, it was Chuck Colbert. He was kind without thinking about it. He walked the walk and scolded those who didn’t but claimed to have created the path. 

On March 17, 2002, two months after the Boston Globe exposed the sexual child abuse by priests rotting the foundation of the Boston archdiocese (depicted in the movie “Spotlight”), Chuck wrote an op-ed in the Boston Herald entitled Leaders of Catholic Church Must Listen to All the Faithful.”  

“Clearly, the Catholic Church in Boston is in crisis. Some blame ‘militant homosexuals’ among the clergy, branding them ‘a true plague on the priesthood.’ Is the crisis, in fact, rooted there?Let me offer another perspective—one based on more than 25 years of faith life as a convert. First, I have failed, somehow, to encounter any Catholic church culture characterized by ‘priestly homosexuals run amok with no fear of condemnation.’ The reality is significantly more boring,” Chuck wrote. 

He went on to describe his scholarly and theological journey from the University of Notre Dame to Georgetown University, Harvard University and Weston Jesuit School of Theology, receiving degrees at each stop. 

“Still, it was not until I arrived in Cambridge 15 years ago that my spiritual desolation over the conflict between my sexual identity and my religious conviction found its positive counterpart: consolation,” Chuck wrote in the Boston Herald. “The catalyst for that life-saving, personal transformation began when a bright and theologically astute Jesuit priest became my spiritual director.

“He listened,” Chuck continued. “Over time, I broke the silence of my anguished pilgrim journey and its struggle with homosexuality. He understood that I carried with me the heavy baggage of church teaching, those deeply wounding, soul-shaming words from the Catechism, ‘objective disorder’ and ‘intrinsic evil,’ that pathologize (and objectify) same-gender love and its sexual expression. Through the respectful, nonjudgmental listening and guidance of spiritual direction and through richer encounters of God’s grace in the sacraments, therapy, and prayer, I came to experience God’s unconditional love. I now feel, to the core of my being, that God loves me (I suspect you) along with all my quirky postmodern, American, but very human, strengths and vulnerabilities.”

Chuck became an expert reporter covering the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal. During a May 7, 2002 appearance on CNN, Chuck responded to a question about the culpability of Cardinal Bernard Law, Archbishop of Boston. 

“I think the question raises a very interesting question, or point,” Chuck said. “And it is not just the personality of the cardinal. Other bishops who were auxiliary bishops at the time [of  Fr. John Geoghan’s arrest for child molestation and release] and are now bishops in other places, as the [Father Paul] Shanley documents have been revealed, these show higher levels of involvement of knowledge. And so it is systemic — but it is also the leadership, the broad leadership that Cardinal Law mustered to either handle or mishandle this scandal, and I think that we will see more of that come out in court.”

Chuck’s expertise was invaluable to the LGBTQ community, as National LGBTQ Task Force Communications Director Cathy Renna told the Windy City Times.

“Chuck was a friend and colleague—one who was extraordinarily principled and helpful, especially when addressing issues related to the LGBTQ community and the Catholic Church. He was instrumental in helping us frame and address the abuse scandal when church leaders scapegoated gay priests, as a person of faith and an intellectual,” Renna said. “[W]orking with him was a vital part of my work taking on the Catholic Church hierarchy while at GLAAD, along with other queer and allied groups. But he was also a pleasure to be friends with, who found joy in life and our community, and was one of the people I most looked forward to seeing at the NLGJA convention and other events. He will be greatly missed.”

Chuck caused some ripples in my life after an interview we did for the online LGBTQ press trade newsletter Press Pass Q in 2016 about my being laid off as news editor by my longtime publisher Frontiers Newsmagazine.

Chuck had interviewed Bobby Blair, chief executive officer of Multimedia Platforms Worldwide, and the new publisher of Frontiers. “Unfortunately, Karen fell where we realized we were moving toward a digital and Millennial audience, and we wanted to give the generation of Millennials a real shot at creating our content,” Blair told Chuck. “Did you get that on tape?” I asked him. 

Chuck Colbert summed up his philosophy via a quote from Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace:

“Life is everything. Life is God. Everything shifts and moves, and this movement is God. And while there is life, there is delight in the self-awareness of the divinity. To love life is to love God. The hardest and most blissful thing is to love this life in one’s suffering, in the guiltlessness of suffering.”  

********************

Karen Ocamb an award winning veteran journalist and the former editor of the Los Angeles Blade, has chronicled the lives of LGBTQ+ people in Southern California for over 30 plus years.

She is currently the Director of Media Relations for Public Justice.

She lives in West Hollywood with her two beloved furry ‘kids’ and writes occasional commentary on issues of concern for the greater LGBTQ+ community.

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First-ever Out doctor elected as new AMA president

The anesthesiologist & LGBTQ health expert will serve as the first openly gay AMA president when he steps into the position later this month

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Dr. Jesse M. Ehrenfeld has been named president-elect of the American Medical Association (Photo courtesy of AMA)

CHICAGO – Physicians and medical students have elected Wisconsin-based anesthesiologist Dr. Jesse Ehrenfeld as the first openly gay president-elect of the American Medical Association (AMA). Ehrenfeld was elected June 14 at the AMA House of Delegates’ annual meeting.

“Well, it’s certainly just an amazing feeling to know that you’ve got the confidence of your colleagues from such a broad array of practice types of modalities and perspectives,” Ehrenfeld told the Washington Blade during a telephone interview. “The association is a very diverse and increasingly diverse organization, and that’s a good thing. It’s more representative of the country and to see such broad support for a vision to move forward was really sort of heartening for me.”

The anesthesiologist and LGBTQ health expert will serve as the first openly gay AMA president when he steps into the position later this month.

“When I joined the AMA 22 years ago, roughly, I didn’t think it was possible that a gay person could be the AMA president. And certainly 175 years ago, when the AMA was founded, that felt like something that wouldn’t have been possible,” Ehrenfeld said. “And so, to look at how the association, how medicine, health professional organizations have evolved, it’s pretty remarkable when you look at what that has looked like, and that’s a reflection of society in general. But certainly, you know, another pink ceiling has been shattered.”

Ehrenfeld previously served on the AMA’s Board of Trustee’s Executive Committee. He also worked on the AMA Recovery Plan for America’s Physicians; a long-term project that was unveiled at the annual meeting.

“A big component of that is helping physicians prepare the health system so that we can make sure that we can renew our commitment to achieving optimal health for all,” Ehrenfeld said. “To do that, we have to make sure that we prioritize the needs of physicians to improve patient care.”

Ehrenfeld is an associate dean and tenured professor of anesthesiology at the Medical College of Wisconsin and has advocated for issues affecting multiple marginalized communities, such as transgender representation in the military. He emphasized the importance of diversifying the medical field to ensure better service for patients.

“We need folks from every community but particularly marginalized communities to step forward and enter the profession. That’s how patients get better care,” Ehrenfeld said “There’s data that when we have a more diverse healthcare workforce, and when we’re a more diverse community, that those health disparities inequities, actually start to go away.”

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Clela Rorex, first U.S. county clerk to issue gay marriage licenses has died

“Clela was so far ahead of the country on this issue that it took the United States Supreme Court 40 years to catch up”

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Clela Rorex at the Longmont Colorado Pride 2019 (Photo courtesy of Out Boulder County)

LONGMONT, CO. – Out Boulder County and the family of Clela Rorex are saddened to announce the death of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer pioneering ally, Clela Rorex. On March 27,1975 Clela issued the first marriage license to a same-sex couple in the United States. Her decision that day changed her life and was a pivotal moment in the decades long struggle for marriage equality.

“The LGBTQ+ movement lost a pioneering ally, and I lost a dear friend. Although Clela Rorex did not intend to be champion for LGBTQ+ equality, she became one on March 27, 1975 when she issued the first marriage license in the United States to a gay couple. That act of courage changed the course of her life and the course of the lives of countless LGBTQ+ people. Clela was 40 years ahead of the country’s politics on marriage equality. It would be difficult to overstate how important her decision to issue that marriage license was on the movement for marriage equality,” Mardi Moore, Executive Director of Out Boulder County said in a statement.

Just as important as her historical significance is the profound impact Clela had on local members of the LGBTQ+ community, like myself, who had the opportunity to be her friend. Clela was a blessing to everyone who knew and loved her. I once told Clela that she was the ally I needed before I knew I needed one and I meant it. Her life made a huge difference, and she will be missed,” Moore added.

Clela Rorex, in March 1975, became the first County Clerk in the United States to knowingly issue same-sex marriage licenses to gay couples – sparking a backlash she could never have predicted, and, for one couple, a decades-long struggle for legal recognition of their marriage. 

Clela’s first day as Boulder County Clerk and Recorder on January 1, 1975 was her father’s last as County Clerk in Routt County, a position he had held for 30 years. A political neophyte, Clela had run an upstart campaign against an entrenched Republican Party that had held the clerkship in Colorado for decades.

Her platform was two-pronged – 1) making it easier for people, especially students, to vote and 2) expanding access to the services offered through the clerk’s office – vehicle licensing, voter registration, and the recording of documents, including marriage licenses. 

 Historically, the role of County Clerk is, sometimes paradoxically, both uncontroversial and deeply involved in the performance of government tasks that converge with personal aspects of the lives of its citizens.

Clela, keenly aware of the frustration that government officials and institutions can provoke, quickly instituted new practices. She expanded County Clerk office hours – including remaining open over the lunch hour and late one night of each week – ensuring convenient access.

She randomized the issuance of license plate numbers, ending the practice of assigning lower-numbered plates to political elites and powerbrokers. And, she flipped the script on voter registration – making it the responsibility of the Clerk, and not the public, to register voters.  

Clela passed away on June 19, 2022 in Longmont, Colorado.

Clela Rorex was born in Denver on July 23, 1943. Within days, she was adopted by Cecil and Ruby Rorex in Steamboat Springs – where she spent her childhood. She credits her father with teaching her the principles of fairness and respect and her mother, who taught dance out of their house, with giving her confidence. “Without either of them,” she recently told this writer, “I would never have run for office.”

As a young naval wife, in 1967, Clela moved to Guantanamo Bay. It is here that she reported first experiencing government-sanctioned segregation. “Everything was segregated. Everything” she later said. “It was humiliating. It had a very strong impact on me.” 

Clela and her son returned to Colorado in 1970 and attended the University of Colorado-Boulder, earning a BA before running for County Clerk and Recorder.

Clela Rorex in 1970’s (Screenshot of archival historic news footage/YouTube)

When two men from nearby Colorado Springs entered the Boulder County Clerk office on March 26, 1975, requesting a marriage license, Clela reached out to Assistant District Attorney Bill Wise, seeking clarification about any existing Colorado state law or code that would specifically prohibit her from issuing a marriage license to two people of the same sex.

Mr. Wise quickly responded that “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.” Clela issued the license to the couple the following day, March 27, 1975.

“After having been so deeply involved in the women’s rights movements” Clela told this writer in 2016, “who was I to then deny a right to anyone else? It wasn’t my job to legislate morality.” 

Within days of issuing the first same-sex marriage license, local, and then national, news picked up on the story. Over the course of the next month, Clela would issue five more licenses to same-sex couples. As a result, Clela reported receiving hundreds of letters and calls to her office and her home condemning and threatening her. “My son would sometimes pick up the phone,” she told this writer in 2015, ”and I could always tell when it was someone calling about the licenses, because he would get this terrified look in his eyes. It changed our lives.” 

Clela Rorex courtesy of Out Boulder County

In late April of that year, Clela complied when Colorado State Attorney General J.D. MacFarlane directed her to stop issuing the licenses to same-sex couples. But, by that point, she had issued a license to Richard Adams and Anthony Sullivan, who had traveled from California after watching Johnny Carson mock the “wacky town” in Boulder on national television.

This license, and their marriage, would set the stage for a federal battle that would resolve only 40 years later after the United State Supreme Court issued its opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, establishing a constitutional right to same-sex marriage nationwide. Mr. Adams, a U.S. citizen, and Mr. Sullivan, an Australian citizen, had been seeking to establish legal permanent residency for Mr. Sullivan through marriage, and the license they obtained from Clela would play a critical role.

In 1977, Clela resigned as Boulder County Clerk and Recorder, never to hold elective office again. She raised two sons, obtained two Masters degrees, and finished her career working as a legal administrator for the Native American Rights Fund. 

In 2015, Clela celebrated the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges on the steps of the Boulder County Courthouse where she had first issued the six licenses 40 years earlier, a location that has since been added to the National Register of Historic Places. Upon hearing of the decision, former District Attorney Bill Wise told this writer that “Clela was so far ahead of the country on this issue that it took the United States Supreme Court 40 years to catch up.”

Shortly thereafter, the United States government issued a green card to Anthony Sullivan, officially recognizing the marriage license that Clela had issued in 1975 as sufficient supporting documentation for the application submitted by Mr. Sullivan and his husband, Richard Adams (who had died in 2012).

Thomas Miller, the creator and producer of a documentary chronicling this story, Limited Partnership, said that, “it was Clela’s keen sense of social justice and strong moral fortitude that make her one of the true pioneers in LGBTQ equality in America. She will always be treasured in the hearts of all who knew her.”

To this day, none of the marriage licenses that Clela Rorex issued to same-sex marriage couples have been revoked or invalidated.

Clela dedicated the last years of her life to LGBTQ+ ally-ship and advocacy, volunteering with Out Boulder County, an organization dedicated to facilitating connection, education, and programming for LGBTQ+ individuals in and around Boulder County.

She will be greatly missed, including by her sons, Scott and Aron and countless LGBTQ+ individuals around the world who embrace her and her story as beacons of hope and inspiration.

Clela’s celebration of life will be held on what would have been her 79th birthday, July 23, 2022. Details are forthcoming. At Clela’s request, in lieu of flowers, donations can be made in Clela’s name to Out Boulder County at https://outboulder.app.neoncrm.com/forms/in-memory-of-clela-rorex

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