MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — In September of 1971, two Minnesota men made national headlines when they obtained a marriage license and got married here.
Michael McConnell and Jack Baker’s wedding started a legal battle that would last 44 years until the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage for all.
Breaking decades of silence, the couple has written a book called “The Wedding Heard ‘Round the World.”
The 1971 event involved extraordinary planning, and it was set in motion just four months after they met.
“On March 10, 1967, Jack said we should become lovers, which was the term gay people used then for getting engaged or getting married,” McConnell said. “And I said, OK, on one condition, that we find a way to be married legally, and he said, OK, I guess I will figure out how.”
It became a mission that would define their lives. It was the reason Baker applied to the University of Minnesota law school.
The first thing he studied was Minnesota marriage law, which said nothing about gender.
“So, I told Mike all we have to do is go and apply for a marriage license,” Baker said.
It would not prove that easy.
Hennepin County’s 1970 rejection of their marriage license application made headlines and led to McConnell losing a job as a University of Minnesota librarian.
“The regents saw that and said we are withdrawing the job offer, and that ended my career with the university,” McConnell said.
But they kept on trying.
McConnell adopted Baker, allowing Baker to change his name to Pat.
Then they applied for and got a marriage license in Blue Earth County and quickly held a ceremony.
But the county and state refused to recognize the marriage.
Baker and McConnell then lost a series of legal appeals, including one at the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972.
“We had become lightning rods,” McConnell said.
Now, the couple has donated their 60,000-piece archive to the University of Minnesota, including thousands of letters they’ve received over the years.
Some of them are hurtful and mean, but many are supportive.
Their crusade was featured in national publications like Look magazine.
“This was a time when gay people were terrified,” McConnell said. “They were afraid that their families would find out, they were afraid that their boss would find out.”
Baker added that their goal all along was “full and absolute equality.”
“We wanted everything,” he said.
Not all gay activists agreed with them.
“A lot of people in the gay community did not agree with gay marriage, and they thought we should shut up,” McConell said. “There were a lot of things more important.”
In the 1980s, McConell and Baker withdrew from public life, and focused instead on their careers.
Baker is an attorney and an engineer. McConell became a top librarian for Hennepin County.
In May of 2013, as the Minnesota Legislature voted to legalize gay marriage. Few in the cheering crowds payed attention to a slender 70-year-old man in their midst.
It was McConnell.
“The power of that was overwhelming,” he said. “It was so powerful, so powerful…We knew it was inevitable when we did this in the seventies, because the Constitution said that we are equal.”
In 2012, the University of Minnesota formally apologized to McConnell for denying him a job in 1970.
An exhibit featuring the couple’s 60,000-piece archive opened Monday at the University of Minnesota Elmer Anderson Library.
For more information, or to see extended footage of McConell’s and Baker’s marriage, click here.