The first gay couple to get married in Minnesota are once again fighting for their legal rights, almost three years after the state legalized gay marriage, a year after the U.S. made the same move — and almost 45 years after they legally married here. The problem? Blue Earth County never recorded the marriage license it issued the couple in 1971.
When Jack Baker asked Michael McConnell to marry him in the late 1960s, McConnell agreed — so long as it would be legal. “That was the way it was done in my family,” he said. “We had longevity in love. Once you made that commitment, you expected it to last.” So Baker, determined to make good on his promise, went to law school and studied the marriage statutes, and found that gender was never specified. No gay couple had ever married, but there was nothing that said they couldn’t. So they did.
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First, they applied for a marriage license in Hennepin County as Michael and Jack, and were rejected. So Michael legally adopted Jack, enabling him to change his name to the gender-neutral Pat, and their application for marriage was accepted in Blue Earth County. After their marriage ceremony, they sent the paperwork in, and went on to enjoy the rest of their lives together — give or take a few other legal battles, such as Jack’s military discharge and Michael’s fight with the U of M over a job it offered him and then withdrew when his relationship with Jack — then student body president — was discovered.
They didn’t discover that the county never recorded their marriage until after they gathered their papers to write “The Wedding Heard ’Round the World: America’s First Gay Marriage” [University of Minnesota Press] with Gail Langer Karwoski, the biography of their love story, complete with legal struggles. Today, they are in a legal limbo, unable to claim Social Security survivor benefits and unable to marry another — or remarry each other, under current law — because their original license still stands, although unrecorded. As of this time, Blue Earth County refuses to record the marriage license it issued.
MinnPost: After writing this book, you donated a massive archive about your life and Minnesota gay history to the University of Minnesota. What did you find when reviewing all that material?
Michael McConnell: It was unbelievable. We were transported back to that time. A lot of it was painful, heartbreaking; so many people lived in fear and guilt. Many people felt they could not come out to their families. We’d get letters from people who were so lonely, so isolated. “I live in a small town in Georgia, and I worry that I will never find someone.” So much has changed, yet it’s important that future generations understand what life was like. We wrote this book with Gail because she has written many books for young adults, and we wanted to reach that audience, and show them that it is possible to find love, even when there are obstacles.
MP: You were both out during a time when many people were not, and Michael, your family in particular was very supportive. Yet you describe your church and community as full of people who would “gleefully murder” you.
MM: The culture in Oklahoma [where both men grew up] is a mix of Southern hospitality and generosity, tempered with a real meanness. Everyone is sweet, loving and kind. But there’s this sense of backstabbing, meanness under the sugary surface: “Why precious, I love you to death. But you do have stinky breath.” It is hard to know who to trust. It was clear in the sermons we heard about Sodom and Gomorrah that we were less than welcome.
My family was very religious, but interpreted that as based in love. Jesus was not about hatred, judgment or criticism. They accepted us as a couple just as they did every one of my siblings’ spouses. We were just ‘Michael and Jack,’ and my mother called him her other son.
MP: Harassment by law enforcement is a re-occurring issue in your story and for the gay community in those years. How has this changed?
Jack Baker: The police in Oklahoma took great pleasure in parading people in front of the cameras and shaming them, trying to destroy their lives. This was widely supported by the local governments. But when we moved to Minneapolis, it was better. The police were not our friends, but they had been told by local politicians not to be offensive.
There were periods of time when police would harass gay people here, though. Back in the days when “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” played every weekend in Uptown, and people would leave the theater late at night in costumes, police would try to bust people, make life difficult. But they wouldn’t generally go to great lengths to ruin your life —expose you to your family, get you fired — which was happening in other parts of the country.
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