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Jack Baker and Michael McConnell became the first same-sex couple in the U.S. to apply for a marriage license

It was 1970, and Hennepin County clerk Gerald R. Nelson rejected their application.

Jack Baker and James Michael McConnell applying for a marriage license in Minneapolis in 1970.
Jack Baker and James Michael McConnell applying for a marriage license in Minneapolis in 1970.
Minnesota Historical Society

Jack Baker and Michael McConnell were introduced by a mutual friend in 1966. When Baker asked McConnell for a committed relationship, McConnell said he would agree only if they could be legally married. There had never been a legal same-sex marriage in the United States, but Baker promised to find a way. There was not a unified marriage equality movement within gay communities at that time; many activists rejected the quest for legal marriage and focused on liberation from straight society.

In 1969, Baker enrolled in law school at the University of Minnesota. While doing research during his first semester, he discovered that the Minnesota marriage statutes did not mention gender, and therefore did not explicitly prohibit same-sex marriage. Baker and McConnell went to the courthouse to apply for a license on May 18, 1970. Hennepin County clerk Gerald R. Nelson allowed them to apply but refused to grant them a marriage license. The resulting publicity cost McConnell a job offer from the University of Minnesota libraries.

Late in 1970, Baker and McConnell filed a case against the Hennepin County District Court. They argued that since same-sex marriage was not explicitly illegal under Minnesota law, they must be issued a marriage license. In January of 1971, the District Court judge denied their motion without comment. Baker and McConnell appealed their case, known as Baker v. Nelson, to the Minnesota Supreme Court, claiming a constitutional right to marry.

Meanwhile, Baker discovered that adoption provides most of the legal familial benefits of marriage, and on Aug. 3, 1971, McConnell adopted Baker. On the adoption papers, Baker legally changed his name to Pat Lyn McConnell. He chose a gender-neutral first name so that they could attempt to apply for another marriage license in a new county. There was no Minnesota law against marrying someone whom you had adopted.

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The pair moved in with friends in Mankato to establish residence in Blue Earth County and applied for another marriage license there. This time, McConnell went to the courthouse alone. The clerk asked no questions about the gender of his intended, Pat Lyn, and issued the license.

Jack Baker (the name he used in practice) and McConnell married on Sept. 3, 1971, by Methodist minister Roger Lynn. It was the first legal same-sex marriage in the United States.

On Oct. 15, 1971, the justices of the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled on Baker v. Nelson, unanimously rejecting the couple’s appeal. The court’s opinion denied their claims for a constitutional right to marry based on the First, Eighth, Ninth, and 14th Amendments.

Baker and McConnell appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking them to rule on the issue of same-sex marriage for the first time. On Oct. 10, 1972, the Supreme Court dismissed the case “for want of a substantial federal question” and upheld the state’s decision.

Baker and McConnell continued to be activists within their community. By 1980, however, they began to withdraw from the public eye to focus on their private life together and their careers. Baker practiced law and McConnell achieved the position of senior librarian within the Hennepin County Library System.

On May 13, 2014, over forty years after Baker and McConnell first applied for a license, Minnesota legalized same-sex marriage. On June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the right to marry was guaranteed to same-sex couples by the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment. The majority decision declared, “Baker v. Nelson must be and now is overruled.”

After same-sex marriage became legal in Minnesota, Baker and McConnell did not apply for a new marriage license, since to do so would be to admit that their 1971 marriage was not legal. Even though Blue Earth County never contested the marriage in court, in 2014 the county stated that they never officially recorded the marriage and could not recognize it retroactively. As of 2016, the couple was considering legal action against Blue Earth County.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.