Video: Gay rights pioneers Jack Baker and Michael McConnell predicted marriage victory in '70s

Baker and McConnell apply for marriage license
In this May 18, 1970, photo provided by The Minnesota Historical Society, Mike McConnell, left, and Jack Baker attempt to obtain a Hennepin County marriage license in Minneapolis. The couple, both 28 at the time, were blocked from getting a license which prompted a lawsuit that was ultimately rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972. Four decades later, the couple is still together in Minneapolis as Minnesota has become the 12th state to legalize same-sex marriage.
Photo by R. Bertrand Heine | Courtesy of MN Historical Society

The two Minneapolis men who were the first in the country to fight for the legal right for gay couples to marry 43 years ago have kept a low profile this week, even as Minnesota became the 12th state to legalize same-sex marriage.

Jack Baker and Michael McConnell applied for a marriage license on May 18, 1970. Their case led to the 1971 Minnesota Supreme Court Baker ruling that set the precedent against same-sex marriage in Minnesota until this year.

The new law, which was signed by Gov. Mark Dayton on Tuesday, goes into effect August 1.

"I am convinced that same-sex marriages will be legalized in the United States," said Baker in an article in the St. Paul Pioneer Press on Oct. 22, 1971. And he repeated that prediction during a TV appearance a few years later.

Baker and McConnell, along with three other same-sex couples, appeared on The David Susskind television show in the 1970s to discuss gay marriage. In this clip, Baker describes the couple's quest for marriage, their confidence they would win that right, and the importance of holding out for full equality.

(Story continues below video.)

Baker and McConnell were not present at Gov. Dayton's signing of the bill on Tuesday. But on Monday, McConnell was in the gallery of the state Senate, at the invitation of Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, to watch the historic vote.

McConnell and Baker have repeatedly declined to be interviewed, in part because they say the victory belongs to a younger generation. But McConnell did respond to a few questions from MPR News via email.

"Yesterday was a very powerful experience for me," McConnell wrote on Tuesday. "I am so proud of this generation! I'm just so elated to have been alive to see and experience this moment in time. Words cannot describe the feeling. When I saw all those thousands of young and older people together celebrating the victory today, it was overwhelming."

On Susskind's show, Baker said he didn't believe same-sex marriage would be granted through the legislative process, and that advocates would have to "disrupt the mechanism and cause chaos."

Forty-three years after Baker and McConnell tossed the match, the state Capitol was ablaze with orange t-shirts and rainbow flags on Tuesday as the governor signed the bill into law.

(Story continues below.)

MORE MARRIAGE VOTE COVERAGE
Story: After bill's passge, supporters jubilant
Story: In the rotunda, issue still divisive
Story: Rift remains in southeast Minnesota
Live blog: Recap of Senate vote
Live blog: Recap of House vote
Photos: From the Minnesota Senate
Photos: From the Minnesota House
Maps: Same-sex marriage votes compared
Interactive: Deep roots of the marriage debate
Special report: How the amendment was defeated

"CAUSING CHAOS" WASN'T POPULAR

Even setting aside society's strong public sentiment against homosexuality in the 1970s, Baker and McConnell's push for marriage was controversial within the gay community.

Baker, who served as the University of Minnesota's student body president, wasn't afraid to be shocking. His name comes up in every interview in the Minnesota Historical Society's Twin Cities Gay and Lesbian Community Oral History Project, with some describing him as an inspiration, and others as a self promoter.

The late State Sen. Allan Spear, DFL-Minneapolis, Minnesota's first openly gay lawmaker, said Baker and McConnell's attempt to wed "woke people up," yet Spear himself was more concerned about the lack of human rights protections.

"Not that any of us were against [same-sex marriage]," Spear said in his 1993 oral history. "But it wasn't the issue most of us saw as the front-burner issue."

Dibble, who now holds Spear's Senate seat, has invoked his predecessor's name frequently in recent days. The marriage bill comes 20 years after Spear successfully added sexual orientation to the state's Human Rights Act to protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people from discrimination in employment, housing and public accomodation.

"AMAZING TIMES"

In one sign of the times, the other male couple on Susskind's 1970s panel discussion on gay marriage appeared in wigs and used only their first names. Susskind told the audience at the end of the program that the men wished to be "incognito."

When reminded of this detail, McConnell wrote, "Those were amazing times for Jack and me. Unlike so many others, we were totally free of guilt, shame and fear. I think maybe we were a bit naive about some things, but we had a loving, supportive family and many friends."

Although Baker and McConnell have not taken a public role in Minnesota's recent marriage debate, they are careful curators of their story. They are in the process of donating their records to two LGBT archives. Baker maintains a blog, Now is the Time, that displays each letter and telegram the couple has received from around the world. McConnell is writing a book that he says will ultimately reveal parts of their story that still remain unknown.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.