Minnesota: Where the push for a marriage license began

Nearly every LGBT person knows about “Stonewall”—the spontaneous resistance to police intimidation of LGBT patrons at the Stonewall bar in New York City in June 1969.

Relatively few know about Hennepin in May 1970.

Photo by R. Bertrand Heine, Minnesota Historical Society

Nearly every LGBT person knows about “Stonewall”—the spontaneous resistance to police intimidation of LGBT patrons at the Stonewall bar in New York City in June 1969.

Relatively few know about Hennepin in May 1970.

Events in both places became powerful catalysts for change in the way mainstream society treats LGBT people.

Stonewall took the form of hundreds of LGBT people using riots and defiance in a major city, refusing to obey laws that were hate-motivated and discriminatory on their face. Hennepin was one gay male couple, wearing suits and ties, walking into a Minnesota county clerk’s office and applying for a marriage license.

Stonewall inspired the creation of thousands of LGBT organizations, newspapers, and communities that grew enough political strength to win elections, change laws, and insist the world understand that gay people are here –“Get Used to It.”

Hennepin garnered a relative lightning flash of media attention –a story in Look magazine, appearances on two nationally televised talk shows, and a summarily dismissed appeal of their lawsuit by the U.S. Supreme Court. Its specific goal –to allow same-sex couples obtain marriage licenses the same as male-female couples— appeared to fail.

Now, 43 years to the month after Jack Baker and Mike McConnell walked into the Hennepin County clerk’s office and filled out an application for a marriage license, their quiet revolutionary act stands as a monument to perseverance and success.

To say Richard John (Jack) Baker and James Michael McConnell were ahead of their time is an understatement.

They are considered the first same-sex couple to walk into any municipal clerk’s office in the United States and apply for a marriage license. They were the first to sue the local clerk when their application was refused, and the first to take their lawsuit to the U.S. Supreme Court.

They are also likely the first same-sex couple ever to obtain a marriage license, albeit through a sleight of name-change. According to a variety of news reports, Baker and McConnell were joined in marriage by a pastor in September 1971 after they obtained a marriage license from Mankato, Minnesota. An un-bylined “special” article in the January 7, 1973, New York Times reported that, in addition to their initial lawsuit over the rejected marriage application, McConnell adopted Baker in August 1971 “with the goal of securing tax and inheritance advantages.”

“At that time, Mr. Baker legally assumed the name Pat Lynn McConnell, while continuing to use the name Baker in his daily affairs.” Then Baker, using his newly adopted name, filled out a marriage license application with McConnell in Mankato, a small city west of Minneapolis.

“On Aug. 16, 1971, Blue Earth County issued the license, and, on Sept. 3, Mr. Baker and Mr. McConnell were married in a private ceremony in Minneapolis by the Rev. Roger Lynn of the United Methodist Church,” noted the Times article. Although the Blue Earth County Attorney challenged the legitimacy of the license, a Hennepin County grand jury “found the question not worth pursuing,” and thus, left the license intact.

Baker and McConnell’s actions garnered other publicity in the early 1970s –publicity that took some courage on their part, given the volatility of the time. They appeared on the Phil Donahue Show and the David Susskind Show, nationally televised talk shows. They were profiled briefly in Look magazine’s cover story on “The American Family.” Their willingness to identify themselves as gay touched many individual gays around the country.

After reading about Baker and McConnell in Look magazine’s cover story, a Birmingham, Alabama, man called the telephone operator in Minneapolis to see whether there were phone numbers for Jack Baker and Michael McConnell. It’s not that he wanted to call them, it’s that he could hardly believe there were other men in the world like him –men who loved men.

“I have secluded myself in an apartment in Birmingham where I live alone away from parents and friends,” wrote the man, whose hand-written letter to Baker is part of an archive at the University of Minnesota. “You and Mr. McConnell have more guts than any man I have ever met.” He asked them to send him information about their gay political organization to “help make a new life for myself.”

“At seventeen years of age, I have already experienced the deep hurt of loving one who can never possibly love you,” wrote another young man, this one from a tiny rural town in Maine who said he had attempted suicide. He couldn’t even bring himself to spell out the word “homosexual” in his letter, and he cautioned them not to include their return address on the envelope because “I’m still unable to speak at home.” But he asked the couple to write “a hopeful clause” to him if they knew of any gay organization that might exist in Maine.

It’s not clear whether Baker and McConnell were able to help the many individual people who wrote to them, but they continued their work of knocking on doors that had previously been closed to gay people –doors that many believed could get them killed.

The couple lived in a world rocked by violence over racial integration, President Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia, the Kent State shootings, and the emergence of the more raucous movement for equal protection of the law launched at Stonewall. In many states, including Minnesota, laws back then were heavily stacked against gay people and it was still illegal to engage in oral or anal sex.

For whatever reasons, these two men believed in the system. They believed that they should trust the system to treat them with the same rights due to all American citizens. But despite the powerful burst forward provided by the Stonewall rebellion, many gay people at the time did not have the courage it took for Baker and McConnell to apply for that marriage license on May 18, 1970.

“The fear then wasn’t that you’d be discriminated against, that was a given,” said one Minnesota activist of the 1970s, in an article by the Associated Press last December “You were a lot more afraid that someone might come after you with a shotgun.”

McConnell, in fact, lost his job at the University of Minnesota library because of the couple’s activism. But still the men forged onward.

And not everyone in the gay community supported what Baker and McConnell were doing. It’s not that they were opposed, but rather they felt the community’s focus and resources needed to be concentrated on goals that were embraced by greater numbers in the community –goals such as laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment and housing, and striking down sodomy laws.

On the David Susskind Show in 1973, Baker said gay activists around the country had criticized him and McConnell, saying gay couples didn’t need a marriage license. And in a 1993 oral history recording, Minnesota State Senator Allan Spear spoke about Baker and McConnell’s efforts, saying marriage “wasn’t the issue that most of the rest of us saw as a front burner issue.”

Today, there is little doubt that marriage for same-sex couples is a “front burner issue.” The U.S. Supreme Court will issue decisions before the end of June on two cases involving the legal rights of same-sex couples. And Minnesota passed a marriage equality law May 13, becoming the twelfth state plus the District of Columbia to treat same-sex couples the same as male-female couples in marriage licensing.

McConnell was on hand in the Senate gallery for the final passage of Minnesota’s marriage equality law, just days shy of the 43rd anniversary of the date he and Baker first filled out the application for a marriage license in Hennepin County.

Though they have, from time to time, responded to questions via email, McConnell and Baker, both in their early 70s now, have eschewed interviews. Reached by phone this week, Baker summarily dismissed this reporter’s request for an interview, saying “I don’t give interviews to reporters, thank you,” and hanging up.

But in a response to a question via email by Minnesota Public Radio reporter Sasha Aslanian, McConnell had this reaction to the passage of the Minnesota marriage equality bill: “Yesterday was a very powerful experience for me. 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.”

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