In commemoration of October being Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender & Queer (LGBTQ) History Month, Marriage Equality USA (MEUSA) will be posting a new story here every Wednesday chronicling the evolution of marriage equality in the United States.
When any of us begin advocating for a cause, it’s common to become passionate about what we are doing and feel like pioneers breaking new ground. This is normal and, sometimes, well-founded. What is equally true is that most often we discover that people who have gone before us fought for the same cause many years ago. We just didn’t know about them because they became part of America’s forgotten, unacknowledged history. This is what happened to Jack Baker and James Mike McConnell until the American marriage equality movement built into a groundswell, with advocates doing research and the national media becoming familiar with the movement. It was only then that the two men were “re-discovered.”
Richard John Baker and James Michael McConnell met at a barn party on Halloween night, 1966, in Norman, Oklahoma. Baker was a field engineer and McConnell was working toward his Masters in Library Science. The young men fell in love and formed a committed relationship. In 1967, the next logical step in their relationship seemed to be marriage. On March 10th, Baker proposed. McConnell accepted on one condition, that they figure out a way to become legally married.
In 1969, Baker decided to study law and was accepted at the University Of Minnesota School Of Law. McConnell was working as a librarian and applied for a position as head of cataloging at the University Library. Baker moved to Minneapolis and six months later, after being hired for the University Library position, McConnell joined him there.
Baker pursued his study of the law and became active on the university campus with a gay student organization; McConnell began his work with the University Library. The couple had now been together for four years; in May 1970 they kept their promise to each other and with several other same-sex couples applied to Minneapolis court clerk Gerald R. Nelson for marriage licenses.
The clerk denied the licenses saying that marriage was limited to “persons of the opposite sex,” despite the fact that Minnesota
state marriage laws did not specify gender at the time. Baker and McConnell moved forward, suing the clerk in state court, where a judge upheld the clerk’s decision and specifically ordered that no such licenses be issued.
When news of their application for a marriage license and their court case became public, Baker became even more well-known and respected on campus. However, the university's Board of Regents made an unprecedented decision and retracted McConnell’s appointment as head of cataloging at the University Library. That led McConnell to file a separate lawsuit, this one charging discrimination and a violation of civil rights.
In the meantime, Baker was elected as the first openly gay student body president at a major university. The men became involved in the ALA Gay Liberation Task Force (now the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table). McConnell found new employment when he was hired at the Hennepin County Library by future ALA president Mitch Freeman.
Represented by the Minnesota ACLU, the couple appealed their marriage license case to the Minnesota Supreme Court, claiming that 1) marriage was never really about procreation and 2) requiring sexual complementarity in marriage is as irrational and bigoted as forbidding interracial marriage. Sound familiar?
While their case proceeded through the legal system, Baker and McConnell were still determined to marry. McConnell adopted Baker in August 1971 so that the couple would be able to access some tax benefits and inheritance rights for each other. Baker legally assumed the gender-neutral name “Pat Lynn McConnell” and on 16 August 1971, using Baker’s new name, they were issued a marriage license in Mankato, a small town west of Minneapolis, in Blue Earth County.
On 3 September 1971, the two men were married in a private ceremony at a Victorian house in Minneapolis by the Rev. Roger Lynn of the United Methodist Church. Although the Blue Earth County Attorney challenged the legitimacy of their marriage license, a Hennepin County grand jury “found the question not worth pursuing.” Baker and McConnell considered themselves legally married from then on.
Six weeks after their wedding, on 15 October 1971, the MN Supreme Court ruled that marriage “is a union of man and woman” in an institution “as old as the book of Genesis,” and that that the Constitution does not protect “a fundamental right” for same-sex couples to get married.
The couple appealed their case to the Supreme Court of the United States. On 10 October 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the appeal. Oral arguments were never held and the justices did not provide an explanation for their decision. The actual ruling was only one sentence long: “The appeal is dismissed for want of a substantial federal question.” That one sentence established a powerful and long-lasting precedent, one often used by the opponents of marriage equality for the next 30 years.
Despite the loss of their historic legal case, Baker and McConnell continued their lives together as a happily married couple, and continued their activism. Baker became an attorney and a local politician, and McConnell had a 37 year career as a librarian with Hennepin County. Rev. Lynn once commented that theirs was one of the most successful marriages he had performed. The two men eventually retired and live quietly in Minnesota.
In 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 in August 2013: “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.”
With the highest respect, we at Marriage Equality USA acknowledge marriage equality pioneers Richard John Baker and James Michael McConnell for their courage and work paving the road for the rest of us. Jack and Mike, thank you.
1971 Wedding Video
Baker v. Nelson Minnesota Supreme Court Ruling 15 October 1971
Top Left: Photo by Melissa Davidson, Studio threesixty5
Center Right: Photo by Peter Hohn, Star Tribune Files
Bottom Left: Courtesy of Tie the Knot, undated