Michael McConnell filed away every photo, letter and legal document for decades.
Together, the files chronicle the love story of McConnell and Jack Baker, who in 1970 became the first same-sex couple to apply for a marriage license. They told the larger history of the fight for gay rights in Minnesota and elsewhere. They filled 80 boxes.
McConnell, a librarian, knew his collection would best fit the University of Minnesota, where researchers and the general public could review it. But thanks to a long, complicated history with the university, the couple hesitated.
“I would not sign until the university apologized,” Baker said.
McConnell added: “His history there was … spectacular. Mine was troubled.”
Several years and an apology later, Baker and McConnell were celebrated Monday evening by the university’s top officials for donating their files to the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in GLBT Studies.
The ceremony, marked by speeches and a standing ovation, demonstrated how much the university — and the country — has changed since 1970, when McConnell got an awful phone call: After news broke about the couple’s marriage license application, the Board of Regents rescinded McConnell’s job offer to be a librarian at the university.
Speaking before a crowd of 90 people, U President Eric Kaler echoed an apology he made on paper in 2012. “How the university treated Michael more than four decades ago — denying him a job because he was gay — was reprehensible,” he said. “The actions by the university clearly and emphatically are not consistent with our values or our practices today.”
Lisa Vecoli, curator of the Tretter Collection, reminded the audience of the mood in 1970, when homosexuality was defined as a mental illness, sodomy was illegal in nearly every state and it was legal to discriminate against gay people.
“And yet, somehow, Michael and Jack dared to dream of marriage,” she said.
Sitting in the dining room of their Minneapolis home Monday morning, McConnell, who is 73, described how for years, he put documents in boxes. As a librarian, who went on to rise within the Hennepin County Library system, McConnell understood “the power of information.” But he also sensed that their relationship would break ground.
He kept the first notes they ever exchanged.
“Once we committed, I knew we were going to change everything,” McConnell said, smiling. “I knew it was going to happen. I did.”
The files show the work behind Baker v. Nelson, the case for which they are best known, including briefs, motions, decisions, working papers and notes. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court refused — with a one-sentence dismissal — to hear their argument for a marriage license. In June, the couple was vindicated by that same court’s decision that the Constitution guarantees same-sex couples the right to marry.
“Baker v. Nelson,” the court said, “must be and now is overruled.”
The archives go well beyond their own fight for marriage. There are dozens of documents — news releases, programs and fliers — from Target City Coalition, the group behind the Gay Pride celebrations of the late 1970s and early 1980s. There are the founding documents behind FREE, or Fight Repression of Erotic Expression, just the second group for gay college students in the country. There are notes surrounding Baker’s election in 1971 as the U’s first openly gay student-body president.
The files go beyond documents. There are buttons, clothing, banners from parades. McConnell is still turning things over to the Tretter Collection, including 400 more photographs — “baby photos up to old-coots-ville” — and personal, more intimate correspondence that won’t be made public until the pair has passed on.
“So much of gay life was hidden,” McConnell said. “Families came in and threw stuff out. … So to have those things and reveal those things is quite amazing.”
The files also detail McConnell’s legal fight against the U.
In April 1970, McConnell got a job offer from the University of Minnesota. “Let me say that we are looking forward to having you join our staff,” University librarian Ralph Hopp wrote, “and I sincerely believe that you will find in this position a challenge and a professionally satisfying opportunity.” McConnell filled out the necessary paperwork, listing Baker as the person to notify in case of emergency.
After the regents refused to sign off, McConnell sued, winning the first legal battle. But in October 1971, a federal appeals court “upheld the right of the University of Minnesota to refuse a librarian’s job to an admitted homosexual,” the Minneapolis Tribune wrote.
In 2012, a news release announced that Kaler “has called McConnell’s treatment reprehensible, regrets that it occurred and says the university’s actions at that time were not consistent with the practices enforced today at the university.”
“For me, that wipes the slate completely clean,” McConnell said Monday at his home. “And I can feel really proud of the chance to put my papers at the university and to see what it has become.”