By Laura Silver
In 1966, Michael McConnell and Jack Baker (J.D. ’72) fell in love. McConnell was the adored son and brother of a big, close-knit family he describes as a “Norman Rockwell painting.” Baker was clean-cut and ambitious, an orphan who’d been raised in a Catholic boarding school, served in the Air Force, and was working as a field engineer. They were introduced at a Halloween party near Norman, Oklahoma, McConnell’s hometown.
Was it McConnell’s optimism, shaped by his loving family, or Baker’s maturity forged by an independent childhood that led the two, on September 3, 1971, to exchange vows in the first legal same-sex wedding in the United States? Either way, to say the two were ahead of their time is an understatement. “What I like to say is, we jerked people 45 years into the future and then waited for them to catch up,” McConnell says.
Now, less than a year since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, McConnell and Baker tell their story in a delightful memoir, The Wedding Heard ‘Round the World: America’s First Gay Marriage (University of Minnesota Press, 2016). Written from McConnell’s point of view with help from writer Gail Langer Karwoski, the book speaks most pointedly to a young adult audience, but all readers will find an inspirational love story as well a fascinating look back at the early days of the gay rights struggle.
Michael McConnell, left, and Jack Baker
Why did the couple—still together and enjoying a quiet life of retirement in the Twin Cities—decide it was time to write a memoir? Says McConnell, “We felt we needed to tell the story so that others could know the truth and the facts. It didn’t start in Massachusetts [the first state to legalize gay marriage]. It didn’t start with a lawsuit in Hawaii. It started right here in Minneapolis, and it was engendered and supported by a group on the University of Minnesota campus.”
McConnell and Baker were already activists by the time their big day arrived. Baker was fighting the Air Force’s unexpected decision to replace his honorable discharge with a general discharge, causing him to lose his job at a military facility. He had also promised McConnell he’d find a way for the two to legally marry. Law school seemed the best way to prepare for the battles ahead, so Baker accepted a spot at the University of Minnesota’s law school, while McConnell, a librarian, accepted a job at the University Libraries.
In Minneapolis, they dove into gay life on campus. Baker was twice elected student body president, the first openly gay university student body president in the nation—news so big that Walter Cronkite reported it on the CBS Evening News. They helped reinvigorate the U’s gay student organization, Fight Repression of Erotic Expression (FREE), which held the nation’s first gay student dance.
One day Baker told McConnell he’d made an exciting discovery at the law library: Minnesota’s statutes did not explicitly forbid marriage between two men. After being denied a marriage license in Hennepin County, the two, with a bit of ingenious maneuvering, obtained a license in Blue Earth County. Soon thereafter, Rev. Roger Lynn, a Methodist minister, conducted their small wedding ceremony in a friend’s south Minneapolis apartment. Meanwhile, their historic lawsuit filed against Hennepin County, Baker v. Nelson, traveled to the United States Supreme Court, where it was ultimately dismissed and became a precedent for all subsequent gay marriage cases.
The wedding brought the couple a new level of fame, most of it positive: They were featured in Look magazine, appeared on Phil Donahue’s and David Susskind’s television shows, and received letters from all over the world. But soon the other shoe dropped: The University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents voted to deny McConnell his library job, stating his “personal conduct, as represented in the public and the University news media, is not consistent with the best interest of the University.” Devastated, McConnell filed a second lawsuit that, again, made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court and was dismissed without review.
Hundreds attended a campus rally in front of Morrill Hall to support McConnell, including Allan Spear, a then-closeted U history professor who years later was elected to the Minnesota Senate and became one of the first openly gay legislators in the nation. Spear later called the McConnell rally life changing. Yet McConnell’s own life was on hold. He took part-time jobs at Dayton’s department store and a gay bar to make ends meet and helped cofound a gay community center. He would eventually return to his profession, and had a satisfying 37-year career at Hennepin County Library.
McConnell calls his firing from the U “a dark cloud that hung over me for over 30 years.” Rapprochement with the U came this past fall, when the couple agreed to donate their papers—more than 60,000 pages of documents, photos, letters, and legal briefs—to the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies at the University of Minnesota Libraries. President Eric Kaler (Ph.D. ’82) apologized for the “reprehensible” treatment McConnell received from the University. The apology, McConnell says, “was a huge relief for me personally. That was a powerful and very welcome thing.”
With the release of their memoir and the Tretter donation, Baker and McConnell are back in the spotlight, this time in a celebratory mode. They’ve recently been profiled in Time magazine, the New York Times, the Star Tribune, and on MPR, among other outlets.
The two agree that while their fight took longer than expected, the outcome was never in doubt. “I think when you start talking about sexuality, people kind of duck their heads,” says McConnell. “But when you talk about love and commitment and family, people understand what you’re saying.”