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One of first gay men to get married reflects on history of gay rights movement

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Michael McConnell poses for a portrait at his home.
Michael McConnell at his home in Minneapolis on Friday. After first being denied a marriage license in Hennepin County in 1970, McConnell and Jack Baker obtained a marriage license from Blue Earth County, Minn., in 1971.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York. The raid and arrest of patrons at a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn ignited multiple days of protests and garnered the attention of the media across the country. 

But the fight for gay rights was gaining momentum before that pivotal moment in New York, including in Minnesota. F.R.E.E. — "Fight Repression of Erotic Expression" — was formed in Minneapolis weeks before the now-famous riots. 

Michael McConnell was a member of F.R.E.E. and made history when he and Jack Baker were the first gay couple in the country to apply for a marriage license in 1970. 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.

Michael McConnell talks about artwork and photographs in his hall.
Michael McConnell talks about artwork and photographs he collected with his husband Jack McConnell throughout their relationship. The center photograph was taken at a F.R.E.E. dance at the University of Minnesota.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

"What we were facing was a society that was quite ignorant. We were seen as predators, sexual beings, not human beings, sinners, insane or sick. All those things were who gay people were defined as during those times," said McConnell. "And so we knew we had a major educational process ahead of us. That didn't scare us so much as it was daunting because we knew the ignorance was wide and deep."

"However when we got to Minnesota and and began pursuing our our dream of marriage, we found a society that was more open. Yes, there were lots of people here who felt those things that I spoke of ... those lies about who gay people are. But, we also found a large number of people here who were just curious. Tell me about this. What is this? And why do you want to do this? And what we found was that people, once their questions were answered, saw you as a person not as this mythical creature. They were fine, you know? You're just like anybody else."

The Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015. 

McConnell and Baker have donated many of their documents, correspondence and journals to the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies at the University of Minnesota.