Their intuition came from different sources: Jack Baker, from his time in law school, and Michael McConnell, from his belief that “love is the most powerful force in the universe.”
But both men felt sure in 1970, after becoming the first same-sex couple to apply for a marriage license, that gay marriage would become legal throughout the United States.
They just never imagined that it would take more than 40 years. “I was off by a few decades,” Baker said last week in the dining room of the south Minneapolis home they’ve restored over that time. Beside him, McConnell chuckled.
Back in 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court refused — with a one-sentence dismissal — to hear their argument for a marriage license. So when the same court recently decided that the Constitution guarantees same-sex couples the right to marry, there was direct personal vindication for Baker and McConnell in a line tucked in the majority opinion: “Baker v. Nelson must be and now is overruled …”
The decision “represents a kind of constitutional apology to Jack Baker and Mike McConnell, 43 years later,” said Dale Carpenter, a University of Minnesota law professor and authority on sexual orientation and the law.
It’s also an acknowledgment of their early focus on marriage, which was unpopular even in parts of the gay community. That agenda remains “a work in progress,” Baker noted, because of a continuing dispute over whether their marriage license is valid.
“What the decision spoke to was that core of commitment and love,” said McConnell, whose voice catches each time he reflects on Justice Anthony Kennedy’s “beautifully worded” decision. “For so long, I think gay men and women were seen as something less than committed, loving people.”
A love story
The pair, both age 73, have been together for 49 years — so long that they tag-team their love story (“I want Jack to tell this part”) and mark it with knowing glances (“Jack has heard this a thousand times, of course”).
A mutual friend introduced them in 1966, at a barn party in Oklahoma. Baker fell in love with McConnell at first sight, he said, seeing that he had “the four T’s — tall, thin, 22 or tall, thin, 23.” McConnell wasn’t sure what to make of Baker’s flattop, from his time in the Air Force, or the engineer’s serious manner. But the friend brushed off McConnell’s doubts. “He said, ‘Oh, Michael, you don’t know what you’re talking about,’ ” McConnell recalled. “ ‘You two are destined for each other.’ Which, as it turned out, was absolutely true.”
By the time Baker suggested the two become lovers, the term at the time, McConnell expected a lifelong relationship. He told Baker yes, but “only if we can be married legally,” McConnell said. “He kind of paused,’’ McConnell said. “Then he said, ‘OK, I guess I’ll have to go to law school.’ ” That launched the pair’s personal agenda and public activism, which would put them on the nightly news, in the pages of Look magazine and on “The Phil Donahue Show.”
Baker enrolled at the University of Minnesota Law School and was elected in 1971 as the first openly gay student-body president. Separated by school and work obligations for a time, the pair sent one another letters and postcards, now preserved in the U’s Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies. Between advice on one another’s résumés and thoughts on gay rights, the pair scrawled silly love notes.
“Will you be my valentine?” Baker doodled on a postcard in 1970, inside a red heart. “Will you marry me as soon as I get the license?” he asked in May of that year.
When Baker and McConnell applied for a marriage license, an act that later cost McConnell a job offer from the U, they invited the press along. The Hennepin County clerk, Gerald Nelson, refused. So the couple took their quest to court.
It was first time someone had sued claiming a constitutional right to marry a person of the same sex, Carpenter said. “So it was audacious and revolutionary in its time.”
A few months before the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled against them — proclaiming that “the institution of marriage as a union of man and woman … is as old as the book of Genesis” — Baker hatched a plan that exploited what he described as a lack of detail in Minnesota law.
First, McConnell adopted Baker in order to get many of the legal protections otherwise afforded to married, heterosexual couples. That process also offered the opportunity for Baker to legally change his name and he picked the gender-neutral Pat Lyn McConnell. Then they stayed for a while in Mankato, where they had friends, establishing residency in order to get a Blue Earth County marriage license.
Back then, Baker said, Minnesota marriage statutes did not explicitly require the two “parties” to be of the opposite sex. Nor did the law explicitly prevent a person from marrying someone he had adopted, Baker said.
“The statutes at that time were very loosely written,” he said. “We were taking advantage of that.”
A Methodist minister married them in a friend’s Minneapolis home on a hot September day in 1971. They wore matching macramé headbands, white pantsuits and wide smiles. A video of the ceremony shows them exchanging gold rings, crafted by a friend, that they still wear today.
Recently, McConnell had printed a large photograph of the two on their honeymoon, wearing robes made by his mother. He plans to hang it upstairs, with other photos of their history.
In 1980, after more than a decade of activism, “we decided we needed our own, private life again,” McConnell said. They stopped giving interviews, even as the gay rights movement grew. McConnell focused on his career, rising within the Hennepin County Library system. After retiring at 68, the librarian began sifting through the 40 big boxes of Pride posters, press clippings and letters in their basement. He wrote a memoir, set to be published in January by the University of Minnesota Press.
In 2013, when the Minnesota Senate approved same-sex marriage, McConnell watched from the gallery. “That was amazing,” he said, shaking his head, “absolutely amazing.” He also attended the first marriages in Minneapolis City Hall that year.
The pair didn’t apply for a license. Theirs, from 1971, is legal and valid, they said. But last fall, they got an unhappy surprise: Their marriage certificate was never officially recorded. A February letter from the Blue Earth County attorney’s office said the license was “legally defective,” so “the marriage was not considered valid and has not been recorded.”
A call and e-mail to that office by the Star Tribune was not returned.
The couple are weighing whether to “seek redress to force Blue Earth County to record the license,” Baker said. “At this stage in the game, they don’t have a leg to stand on. That’s my opinion.”
But they’d rather enjoy retirement — Baker in the yard, McConnell in the kitchen — perhaps traveling, Baker said. “At this point, we’re not interested in more lawsuits.”
The minister who signed the certificate, Roger Lynn, 77, considers their marriage among his most successful. They were, and continue to be, he said, “a loving couple, well-matched.”
Despite getting flooded with mail, about half of it negative, Lynn has “never regretted” performing the couple’s ceremony.
Baker and McConnell, too, got letters from all over the world. Through the years, they saved every note, even the caustic ones, labeling some envelopes with the word “hate.” One was addressed simply to, “Homosexuals, Minneapolis.” But most of the notes thanked them for stepping forward. Many authors revealed their own homosexuality and asked how they, too, might find somebody to love.
“The isolation then was intense and cruel,” McConnell said.
The couple’s materials are “remarkable” partly because they were visible at a time when few gay people were, said Lisa Vecoli, curator of the Tretter Collection. “They were also very conscious that they were making history.”
After they retreated from the public eye, the mail slowed.
Then a note arrived in June: “Congratulations, sirs, on your lasting marriage. I’m confident the United States Supreme Court will uphold this right for all of us. It’s only right that they do so.”
A few days later, the court did.