A pioneering couple

Michael McConnell and Jack Baker share their story in “The Wedding Heard ‘Round the World: America’s First Gay Marriage”

Jack Baker and Michael McConnell at their home in the Lyndale neighborhood. Credit: Photo by Elizabeth Brumley / Murphy News Service

“This is my magic room,” Michael McConnell says as he leads me into his bungalow’s dining room in the Lyndale neighborhood.

The walls are painted with a floor-to-ceiling mural of trees, mountains and a swirling sky. McConnell tells me his friend painted the room decades ago when he and his husband Jack Baker moved into the house in 1971.

Magic indeed.

McConnell and Baker were the first known same-sex couple in the nation to apply for a marriage license. They were married on Sept. 3, 1971 — more than four decades before the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling declaring same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states.

Now, a few months after their 44th anniversary, McConnell and Baker are telling their full story.

They have donated 50,000 to 60,000 documents to the University of Minnesota’s Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies over the past three years. That has led to the publication of “The Wedding Heard’ Round The World,” a book by McConnell, Baker and their long-term friend and author Gail Langer Karwoski. 

Their story

McConnell and Baker’s love story seems as though it was meant to be.

McConnell was raised in Norman, Okla., with a family that accepted his sexuality and eventually treated Baker as a second son. Baker’s parents died when he was a child. He and his siblings grew up at a Catholic boarding school, Maryville Academy, outside Chicago. They both received undergraduate degrees from the University of Oklahoma.

McConnell and Baker met at a party in October 1966 in Norman, Okla., when McConnell was finishing graduate school at the University of Oklahoma. They were introduced by a mutual friend who said they were “destined for each other,” as they say in the book. They did not believe him at first, but it soon proved true and Karwoski says it is still true today.

She describes them as complete opposites. Baker is direct, goal-oriented and businesslike — “the classic engineer,” she said, while McConnell is warm, hospitable and “the person that you could feel comfortable telling a story to.”

“Their personalities are really different,” Karwoski said. “They have a marriage made in heaven.”

When Baker asked McConnell to move in with him, McConnell took matters one step further and told him they should get married.

“We didn’t plan to be the first [legally married same-sex couple],” Baker said. “We just knew we wanted to do it. We weren’t sure if it had even been discussed before.”

Tretter Collection curator Lisa Vecoli said the couple made a bold move.

“Everybody else was trying to figure out how not to be arrested, how not to be fired, how not to be exposed, how not to be threatened or killed, all of those things, and somehow Jack and Michael said, you know, no, we don’t want a bite out of the sandwich, we want the whole loaf of bread,” she said.

The couple jumped through years of legal hoops—including Baker attending law school at the University of Minnesota to be further prepared to fight for their rights—to obtain a marriage license. They were denied until 1971 based on legal technicalities at different court levels.

While Baker was in law school and fighting for gay rights as the Minnesota Student Association’s first openly gay student body president, McConnell was fighting battles of his own. He applied to work in the University of Minnesota’s library system, but the offer was rescinded because of his sexual orientation.

“I was very fearful,” McConnell said. “I thought I would never get to work in my profession.”

The court ruled in favor of the University of Minnesota and McConnell was never hired. Three years later, the Hennepin County Library system offered him a job. He worked with them until his retirement in 2010.

During the hectic years of law school and court cases, they never lost sight of their end goal. They finally obtained a marriage license in 1971 after carefully winding through legal loopholes. They knew the Minnesota Supreme Court would rule on the license’s legality within a few months, so they planned to get married quickly.

McConnell and Baker were married on Sept. 3, 1971. The majority of their family members could not attend, but many friends helped make the day possible. The ceremony was held at friend Paul Hagen’s Minneapolis apartment. Others helped them prepare vows, served as their best men and signed the marriage certificate as witnesses. Terry Vanderplas, whom McConnell and Baker had known for years, made custom rings they still wear today.

“If you put them together this way,” McConnell said as I examined the rings side-by-side, “The cutouts spell ‘Jack loves Mike.’” He placed them in the opposite order. “Now, if you put them this way, they spell ‘Mike loves Jack.’”

The United States had its first legal gay marriage.

McConnell and Baker had achieved their dream. But they soon realized their days of fighting for gay rights were just beginning.

The ups and downs of activism 

“I wish I could say that our wedding ceremony transformed the world overnight. That an army of lovers rose up and marched hand in hand. That all the world’s people pledged to be fair to gays and straights, blacks and whites, men and women. I’m such a romantic that for a few glorious hours after our ceremony, I almost believed such a dream would come true.” — “The Wedding Heard ‘Round the World,” page 131

McConnell and Baker said being gay activists in the 1970s was stressful, on their jobs and their relationship.

“It was exhausting!” McConnell said.

As pioneers in the gay rights movement McConnell and Baker gained national notoriety. Baker said that though they had some backlash, many people were curious about what they were doing. They willingly answered many tough and blunt questions because people often had no one else to ask.

The couple traveled all over the United States so Baker could speak at universities and events as the face of the 1970s gay rights movement. They were featured nationally in newspapers and magazines.

“They were in ‘Look,’ they were in ‘Life,’ they were on the ‘Phil Donahue Show.’ In today’s terms, that’s like being in ‘People’ magazine or on ‘The Ellen [DeGeneres] Show.’ That’s the scope of how public and how well-known and visible they were,” Vecoli said.

Activism took a physical, mental and emotional toll on Baker and McConnell. They stepped out of the limelight in 1980, when they decided it was time for others to take on leadership roles in the gay community.

“The Wedding Heard ‘Round The World” tells their tales of activism in Minneapolis and around the country, but Vecoli said the book does not come close to covering how taxing gay activism in the 1970s was.

“What you don’t get, I think, is a really full sense of what it was like to be gay in 1970 and why it was so remarkable that they were able to conceptualize marriage and full equality,” she said.

They still do not regret their time in the public eye.

“It was worth it,” Baker said. “It ignited the flame so it would go on its own.”

Forty years later 

McConnell, ever the careful librarian, saved everything from their years of activism. They appeared in numerous newspaper and magazine articles, obtained several court documents and received endless letters from people whom their story touched.

Nearly all of the documents are immortalized in the Tretter Collection and “The Wedding Heard ‘Round The World.”

Baker and McConnell agree that going through the documents was an emotional process.

“It brings back memories that, quite frankly, weren’t that painful, but it was difficult to remember that was really that bad,” Baker said. “When you go back and read those letters, you go back to your childhood and see things that made you sad.”

The University of Minnesota issued a formal apology to McConnell before they donated the files to the Tretter Collection in 2012. The couple stressed how much the apology meant to them after years of turmoil.

“U of M President Eric Kaler has called McConnell’s treatment reprehensible, regrets that it occurred and says the university’s actions at that time were not consistent with the practices enforced today at the university. The U of M is dedicated to the fair and ethical treatment of all and its current policies prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, as well as gender identity and gender expression,” the apology read.

Now, McConnell and Baker, both 73, focus less on activism and more on their own lives.

“We’re just growing old together,” McConnell said, smiling at Baker.

McConnell grows herbs in a sprawling backyard garden. He likes to spend his nights cooking in the small but perfectly efficient kitchen he designed himself.

Baker is content eating whatever concoctions McConnell makes next.

Now that the book is finished and the Tretter Collection files are nearly complete, the couple has plans to visit friends they have not seen in 40 years, proving there is always time for what is important.

Everything after that is left unwritten.

As they say in the book, Jack Baker and Michael McConnell are “as good as anybody else.” Their story demands to be heard.

Reporter Madison Bloomquist is studying journalism at the University of Minnesota. 

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Book launch 

The University of Minnesota will host a book launch for “The Wedding Heard ‘Round The World” at the Elmer L. Andersen Library, 222 21st Ave. S., on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 7 p.m. There will be a Q&A session with McConnell, Baker and Karwoski, as well as an exhibit of  the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in GLBT Studies and the Michael McConnell Files.