For Mpls. couple, gay marriage ruling is a victory 43 years in the making

Michael McConnell and Jack Baker
Michael McConnell, 73, and Jack Baker, 73, at their home in Minneapolis, Minnesota on July 1, 2015.
Courtesy Angela Jimenez

This June, Jack Baker and Michael McConnell got the call they'd been awaiting for 43 years.

The Supreme Court had issued a ruling: Same-sex marriage would now be legal across the country.

"I felt like, perhaps the word for me would be 'vindication': We were right. We had been right," McConnell said.

Baker and McConnell made history in 1970 when they walked into the Hennepin County Courthouse and became the first same-sex couple in the country to apply for a marriage license.

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At the time, the press seized on it as a crucial political moment, but for the couple, it was an intensely personal act.

When Baker first proposed to McConnell in 1967, McConnell agreed, under one condition. "I told him I would only agree if he could find a way for us to become legally married," McConnell said.

Baker's reaction? "I guess that means I'll have to go to law school."

He did just that, and while enrolled at the University of Minnesota Law School, he studied the state's marriage statutes. He found that Minnesota did not explicitly forbid marriage between two people of the same sex.

"And under the rule of law, what's not forbidden is permitted," Baker said.

Baker and McConnell apply for marriage license
In this May 18, 1970, photo, Mike McConnell, left, and Jack Baker attempt to obtain a Hennepin County marriage license in Minneapolis.
Photo by R. Bertrand Heine | Courtesy of MN Historical Society

So on May 18, 1970, the two men walked into the courthouse and filed their application. The clerk, Gerald Nelson, refused to issue the license.

The couple filed suit, and when both a district court and the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled against them, they continued to appeal. Baker v. Nelson eventually landed in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1972, the Court responded with a single sentence: "The appeal is dismissed for want of a substantial federal question."

Baker, then just two months shy of graduating from law school, couldn't understand the high court's decision.

"One of the first courses I took was constitutional law, in which they talk about equal protection under the law, so to me the whole thing was intuitively obvious," Baker said.

Last month — 43 years later — the Supreme Court agreed. The majority decision for Obergefell v. Hodges reads:

"The Court now holds that same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry. No longer may this liberty be denied to them. Baker v. Nelson must be and now is overruled."

For Baker and McConnell, the June ruling didn't come as a surprise — what was surprising is just how long it took.

"I can't say it didn't come with some frustration. We thought this would be over in 1980," said McConnell.

The two men didn't let the court's 1972 ruling hold back their journey to marriage. After being denied in Hennepin County, they relocated to Blue Earth County to establish residency and try their luck in front of a different county clerk who might interpret the state marriage statute the same way they had.

First, McConnell legally adopted Baker so that the couple could have some of the same rights that married couples had: the right of inheritance and the right to make medical decisions for each other. The adoption process also allowed Baker to legally change his name; he chose the gender-neutral Pat Lyn McConnell.

When the couple applied again for a marriage license in 1971 — there was no law forbidding a person to marry someone he or she had adopted — this time in Blue Earth County, it was granted. They were married that September.

Baker continued to publicly advocate for gay rights, making appearances around the country and in Canada. By 1980, however, he stepped back from the spotlight.

"I decided this argument was going on too long," Baker said. The fight had dominated the couple's life for a decade. Even the act of filing for a marriage license had cost McConnell a job offer from the University of Minnesota.

McConnell and Baker
Michael McConnell, left, and Jack Baker were guests on the David Susskind TV show in the 1970s. They and three other gay couples discussed their thoughts on same-sex marriage and equality.
Screen capture of video from WNEW, New York, courtesy Museum of Broadcast Services

It took another 25 years for the Supreme Court to catch up with the arguments Baker had first made in the 1970s. Other couples had taken up the mantle, filing suits and fighting for their right to marry.

Now, with a memoir in the works and federal marriage equality on the books, McConnell and Baker are preparing to face the press again.

In 2010, after retiring from his work as a librarian, McConnell started packing up all of the papers and records he'd collected throughout their relationship. He filled more than 40 boxes with everything from postcards to legal briefs. The couple donated them to The Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies at the University of Minnesota.

Digging through the past inspired the couple to write a book about their relationship.

"There's lots of information out there about us — some of it accurate and some of it not. We wanted to make sure we told our story," said McConnell.

Their book, "The Wedding Heard 'Round the World: America's First Gay Marriage," is due from the University of Minnesota Press in early 2016.

Correction (July 17, 2015): An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed the quote, "And under the rule of law, what's not forbidden is permitted." Jack Baker said it. The story has been updated.