America’s First Gay Marriage, 44 Years Later
Jack Baker and Michael McConnell sit at their solid oak dining table in their south Minneapolis home. An advance copy of Michael’s memoir (to be released in January) sits in front of them. The memoir, titled The Wedding Heard ‘Round the World, details their love story and commitment to each other that led to the United States’ first gay wedding… in 1971.
Long before the fight over same-sex marriage took over national media, long before Kentucky clerks were being arrested for denying gay couples’ marriage licenses, Jack Baker and Michael McConnell decided to find a way to marry.
The year was 1967. Homosexuality was still classified as a disorder, sodomy was illegal in nearly every state, and most gay men and lesbians lived in fearful secrecy.
“As you may know,” Michael says, reaching his hand out to me, “[it] was a time for gay people that was pretty scary. Most people were closeted. Most people were fearful. Most people were even uncomfortable in their own families.” But, Michael confides, neither he nor Jack lived a secret life.
It was a closeted time, but as someone who came out to his family at 19 years old, Michael wasn’t afraid or hiding from anyone and had a supportive family to back him up. Quite the contrary, he knew who he was. From the age of 14, eyeing young men in his father’s barbershop, Michael dreamed of living “happily ever after” with a partner. So when Jack proposed moving in together, Michael challenged him. “If we’re going to do this,” he replied, “you have to find a way for us to get married.”
They had met the previous year at a Halloween barn party in Oklahoma. It was a time when no one talked about being gay. It wasn’t in the press, and if it was it was something ugly and awful. The cops raided bars (if there were bars). Michael says, “In Oklahoma, which was a dry state, the only way you could drink liquor was to belong to a private club and bring your own bottle to the club.”
According to him, there were only a few gay clubs and the only way you got into those clubs was to come up to the door, peek through, and if they knew you, you got in, or if you were with someone they knew, you got in. By those hidden standards, Michael and Jack considered themselves pretty far advanced in terms of being out.
“By 1967 when Jack asked me to commit,” Michael says, “I had already been with someone for four years, and had learned about relationships, had learned about the broader gay community, not only locally but across the country. And so we never had the shame, we never had the guilt, we never had the fear that most gay people had.”
For Michael, who had the support of his family, and Jack, whose parents died when he was young leaving him an orphan at a Catholic boarding school, there was no need to hide who they were. In fact, Michael’s mom was overjoyed by their relationship. Jack came along after Michael had broken up with his first lover, which sent him into a deep depression, and Jack was the guy to pull him out of it.
“My mom and dad were thrilled that I was finally seeing someone,” Michael says. “As my mom said, ‘Michael, you have got to stop this, you have got to get out of this house and go get with your friends!’ When Jack showed up, they really liked him. There was this guy, he’s a serious kind of guy, and he’s an engineer and he’s responsible and really polite. They really wanted to see this happen.”
And so their relationship blossomed to the point of discussing marriage. In 1969, Jack decided it was time to go to law school to figure out how to make it possible. At the University of Minnesota’s law school, Jack got involved on campus. He joined and became the first president of the gay student group known as FREE (Fight Repression of Erotic Expression), which gave him the platform to demand equal marriage rights, among other things, for gay people. The other FREE members were undergraduates and, for the most part, were happy to support Jack’s activist vision.
“Because we had lived free and openly, we had a different view of the world and felt much more comfortable about where we needed to go and what we needed to do,” Michael says. “Most gay people at that time were looking for companionship and friends and just being with others who felt the same way you did. The isolation and the fear really took its toll on people.”
But Michael and Jack had already found each other; they had already overcome the feelings of isolation that so many gay men and women felt at the time. They saw a bigger picture.
“We began to talk about those things that were really important that we felt were for the bigger change that would come to society,” Michael shares. “And we knew that marriage would be the thing that would do that because it is the bedrock of society. It defines relationships, it determines what rights and privileges are passed down in society through the law, it works in distribution or conservation of wealth, it deals with children — a whole host of things. We knew this would have a huge impact. But more importantly for us, personally, it was an important part of our commitment that this was something that we wanted for ourselves. We wanted to have the same respect and the same kind of relationship that members of the rest of our family did.”
As a law student, Jack was getting an understanding for how the law and politics worked, and how to use that to his advantage. “One of the things that you learn in politics is one of the things the politicians like to do is they say ‘go slow’ and that really means that you beg for whatever equality they’re willing to give you,” he says. “And we just said ‘Absolutely not; it’s full and absolute equality, no exceptions, no excuses.’”
With the gay movement gaining speed, the men decided the culture was ripe for them to take action. “You know the coasts had nothing over Minneapolis,” Michael says. “This was a center. This truly was a center during that time. And Minnesotans are so modest and nice, you know, we don’t want to brag too much, but one of the first national gay conferences was held right here on the West Bank.”
Indeed, gay people and their allies were demanding equality nationwide. With groups like the Mattachine Society in Chicago and the Phoenix Society in Kansas City, activism wasn’t reserved to the coasts. Michael says that the East Coast likes to claim Stonewall as the beginning of the gay movement — it wasn’t. “There were many other things going on at that time,” he says. “People kicked closet doors open so loud you could hear them echoing across the whole country.”
Against that homophile movement backdrop, Jack began his research at the law school and discovered that marriage between two persons of the same sex was not forbidden by state statutes. So they applied. In 1970, Jack and Michael became the first same-sex couple known to apply for a marriage license. Turned down by Hennepin County, they fought to the United States Supreme Court, where they lost their case in a one-sentence dismissal that has reverberated in federal courts and played an indirect role in pushing same-sex marriage to the high court this year.
“They did not deny the claim, they dismissed it; there is a legal distinction there,” Jack says. “And basically they dismissed it ‘for want of a substantial federal question,’ which in plain English is ‘now is not the time; we will answer that question but not now.’ So it came back this year in 2015 and the court finally answered the very question that we posed. So the whole issue on same-sex marriage began here and ended here. So we’re quite proud of that. That’s the difference between then and now. It only took forty-something years to get an answer to the question, but it was the correct question, correct answer.”
Of course, at the time the Supreme Court dismissed their case, the couple did not give up. With some sleight of hand involving a legal change to a gender-neutral name, they obtained a marriage license in another county, and in 1971, in white bell-bottom pantsuits and macramé headbands, they exchanged vows before a Methodist pastor and a dozen guests in a friend’s apartment. Their three-tiered wedding cake was topped by two plastic grooms, which a friend supplied by splitting two bride-and-groom figurines.
Ever since, they have maintained that theirs was the country’s first lawful same-sex wedding. The state and federal governments have yet to grant formal recognition, but no court has invalidated their 1971 license either.
Michael and Jack are quick to tell you that they always believed that they would live to see marriage equality nationwide, they just assumed it would be “by the end of the decade.” Well, 1980 came and went without getting any closer to that goal, so the two men decided to step out of the public eye and allow someone else to take the reins.
“We had become a lightning rod that was, we felt, holding things back,” Michael says. “We felt it would be best if we could move aside and let new people come in, develop their leadership skills, and advocate for themselves.”
The question begs to be asked: why, after so many years and court cases not going in their favor, did the couple continue to fight? Where did they get the courage and passion to keep going?
“My parents always told me, ‘You are as good as anyone else,’ and that’s where my feelings about full equality come from,” Michael says.
For Jack, his passion and courage to keep fighting come from the commitment he made to Michael. “We were committed to an agenda and so there’s no point in stopping midstream on our agenda, so we just stood firm on it,” he says. “Once you bite the bullet, you’re just going to have to fight.”
Now, more than three decades after stepping out of the national spotlight, the two men are preparing for the release of Michael’s memoir, effectively placing them back in the public eye.
“Every year there will be a new batch of 14-year-olds and they all ask the same question: How can I find Mr. or Mrs. Right?” Jack says. “And that’s what that memoir is aimed at, to try and address that question for young adults, for teenagers.”
More than just the story of how the couple met, applied for a marriage license, and took that battle to the Supreme Court, readers will also discover the couple’s other forms of activism. From fighting for job security for gay people to taking on the Air Force, Michael’s memoir details just how far they are willing to fight for themselves and the man they love.
The memoirs became an idea after the recently retired couple began organizing the boxes of history — documents, letters, buttons, and so much more — that they had been collecting over the years that was piling up in boxes in their basement.
The couple have been very forthcoming about their court cases and the public life they lead, but, as Michael says, they hadn’t told their love story.
Here, Jack chimes in. “And we were just kind of sitting it out and waiting to see what everyone would say about what was going on and an awful lot of people were claiming credit for everything they didn’t do,” he says. “And so we actually have the final say. Now, this is what ACTUALLY did happen on same-sex marriage and where it actually did start. And the fact of the matter is that the bragging rights on same-sex marriage belong to the University of Minnesota, not on the east coast or the west coast or anyplace else. They’re right here, and it’s all documented, and it’s all in the book.”
Michael adds, “The basics are here. The truth is here. What we did is here. It’s documented. They can’t claim that it began in Hawaii or Massachusetts or someplace else. This is where it began, and we have the facts and they’re sitting right over in the archives at the University of Minnesota.” He’s referring to the recent donation of the couple’s documents and artifacts to the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies. Their collection of letters, articles, and correspondence with GLBT activists around the world is now on display and open for researchers, students, and activists to further their research.
Indeed, the forthcoming memoir details much more than was part of their previous public persona, sharing pieces of their story that haven’t been told before. “By 1980, when we decided to get off the public stage,” Michael says, “when we would share those pieces they would either be ignored or they’d be used to prop up some other viewpoint.”
“We’re telling our story, our way,” Jack adds. “And the reason we waited was we could see the story of marriage equality was approaching its apex; a decision was going to be made. Now’s the time to tell that story, because now we can tell the full story.”
With marriage equality now a nationwide reality, the logical question is what’s next? According to Jack and Michael, the activists of today will set their sights on a new goal. That goal looks to be furthering civil rights in the form of housing and employment discrimination for the GLBT community. But whatever the next cause is that rallies activists together, Jack has one bit of advice for those seeking change: “If you don’t stand tall and defend yourself, no one else will either. You’ve got to advocate for yourself.”
Michael’s memoir, The Wedding Heard ’Round the World: America’s First Gay Marriage, is set to be released in January 2016. A launch party, complete with a Q&A session with Jack Baker and Michael McConnell, will take place January 26, 2016 at 7 p.m. at the Elmer L. Andersen Library on the University of Minnesota campus. For now, preorder your copy of the memoir from the University of Minnesota Press at www.upress.umn.edu.