R. Bertraine Heine / AP
In this May 18, 1970, photo provided by The Minnesota Historical Society, Mike McConnell, left, and Jack Baker attempt to obtain a Hennepin County marriage license in Minneapolis.
When Jack Baker proposed to Michael McConnell that they join their lives together as a couple, in March 1967, McConnell accepted with a condition that was utterly radical for its time: that someday they would legally marry.
Just a few years later, the U.S. Supreme Court slammed the door on the men's Minnesota lawsuit to be the first same-sex couple to legally marry in the U.S. It took another 40 years for the nation's highest court to revisit gay marriage rights, and Baker and McConnell — still together, still living in Minneapolis — are alive to see it.
On Friday, the justices decided to take a potentially historic look at gay marriage by agreeing to hear two cases that challenge official discrimination against gay Americans either by forbidding them from marrying or denying those who can marry legally the right to obtain federal benefits that are available to heterosexual married couples.
"The outcome was never in doubt because the conclusion was intuitively obvious to a first-year law student," Baker wrote in an email to The Associated Press. The couple, who have kept a low profile in the years since they made national headlines with their marriage pursuit, declined an interview request but responded to a few questions via email.
While Baker saw the court's action as an obvious step, marriage between two men was nearly unthinkable to most Americans decades earlier when the couple walked into the Hennepin County courthouse in Minneapolis on May 18, 1970, and tried to get a license.
New York City's Stonewall riots, seen now as the symbolic start to the modern gay rights movement, were less than a year in the past. Sodomy laws made gay sex illegal in nearly every state; most gay men and lesbians were concerned with much more basic rights like keeping their jobs and homes or simply living openly.
"People at the time said these guys were crazy," said Phil Duran, legal counsel to OutFront Minnesota, the state's principal gay rights lobby. "I think today, most people would say, 'Holy mackerel, you saw this when no one else did.' History will vindicate them. It already has."
Forty years after they appeared in a "Look" magazine spread and on "The Phil Donahue Show," Baker and McConnell have retreated from public life. The men, both 70, live in a quiet, nondescript south Minneapolis neighborhood. McConnell recently retired after a long career with the Hennepin County library system. Baker, a longtime attorney who ran unsuccessfully for Minneapolis City Council and a judgeship in the years after they pursued a marriage license, is mostly retired as well. Their case is no longer widely recalled in Minnesota, and the couple has mostly withdrawn from open activism, although the two men are working on a book about their lives.
Today, nine states have legalized gay marriage or are about to do so. The state-by-state approach adopted by gay rights groups has gathered steam, while the Supreme Court has yet to revisit its slim holding in Baker v. Nelson or address whether the Constitution extends marriage rights to straight and gay couples alike.
Just a day after Washington became the latest state to allow gay couples to marry, the U.S. Supreme Court will take a serious look at same-sex marriage for the first time ever. NBC's Pete Williams reports.
The high court in October 1972 declined to hear arguments in Baker v. Nelson, rejecting it in a one-sentence dismissal "for want of a substantial federal question." Now, in taking up the dispute over the California constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, the court may confront the issue of whether the U.S. Constitution forbids states from defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman.
"I am convinced that same-sex marriage will be legalized in the United States," Baker told a group of lawyers on Oct. 21, 1971, quoted then by the St. Paul Pioneer Press (in a story that described him as an "admitted homosexual"). But for years after the high court refused to hear arguments in Baker v. Nelson, its single sentence was cited as precedent by federal courts that ruled against same-sex unions.
According to an unpublished book about their case by Ken Bronson, a Chicago-based amateur historian who extensively interviewed Baker and McConnell, the two met at a Halloween party in Norman, Okla., in 1966. McConnell, at this first meeting, expressed his belief that gay people should not be treated like second-class citizens. Not long after, Baker —a U.S. Air Force veteran with an undergraduate degree in engineering — was fired from a job at Tinker Air Force base for being gay.
Soon the couple relocated to Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota, McConnell to take a job at its library and Baker to study law. He joined a campus group called FREE (Fight Repression of Erotic Expression), an early gay-rights group.
"The fear then wasn't that you'd be discriminated against, that was a given," said Jean Tretter, a member of FREE who went on to decades of gay activism in Minnesota. "You were a lot more afraid that someone might come after you with a shotgun."
Baker and McConnell — educated, clean-cut and handsome — contrasted with the typically scruffy counterculture activists of the era. But the Hennepin County attorney blocked their bid for a marriage license, a decision upheld by a district judge and affirmed by the state Supreme Court with reasoning that echoes in today's arguments against gay marriage: "The institution of marriage as a union of man and woman, uniquely involving the procreation and rearing of children within a family, is as old as the Book of Genesis."
Asked via email why they pursued the case, Baker wrote, "The love of my life insisted on it."
It was a stormy time for the couple. Soon after McConnell relocated to Minnesota, the University of Minnesota's Board of Regents yanked his job offer because he was openly gay; the U.S. Supreme Court rejected his separate lawsuit to get it back. In April 1971, amid both legal dramas, Baker was elected and then a year later re-elected as president of the university's student government.
Two decades after the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed Baker v. Nelson, the Hawaii Supreme Court in 1993 ruled that homosexuals had a constitutional right to marry. It started the ball rolling on a movement that has seen many victories and setbacks since.
"Jack was the politician — outgoing and effective, manipulating the material world," said Roger Lynn, a retired Methodist pastor who performed a marriage ceremony for the men in 1971, and who remains in touch with them occasionally. "Michael was the librarian, detail-oriented, more introverted. They were a good match, and they're still making it work."
In a strange twist to their story, Baker wrote via email that he and McConnell would be personally unaffected if Minnesota legalizes gay marriage. In 1971, about 18 months after Hennepin County rejected their application, the couple traveled to southern Minnesota's Blue Earth County, where they obtained a marriage license on which Baker was listed with an altered, gender-neutral name.
That license was later challenged in court but was never explicitly invalidated by a judge. While Baker recently predicted on his blog that gay marriage would be legalized in Minnesota soon, he emailed that he and McConnell don't see a need to make it official in Hennepin County.
"We are legally married," Baker wrote.
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