Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The times they were a'changing. We were, too.

Michael McConnell and Jack Baker, America's first legally married gay couple,
apply for a marriage license in 1970 in Minnesota. Photograph by R.Bertrand Heine,
courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

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Writer Gail Langer Karwoski worked closely with Michael McConnell and Jack Baker, America's first legally married gay couple, to tell their story in The Wedding Heard 'Round the World: America's First Gay Marriage. Michael and Jack were featured on the front page of the New York Times in May.
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BY GAIL LANGER KARWOSKI

This memoir begins during the 1960s, when unrest on the nation’s campuses bubbled over and spilled onto the streets. Voices of antiwar activists mixed with civil rights marchers and bra-burning feminists. It was the era when America’s youth reexamined the menu for success—from boardroom to bedroom.

And it was the era when gay men and women marched out of the closet to declare their pride. In 1967, the first gay student organization formed at Columbia University. In June of 1969, the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village became a battlefield where embittered drag queens confronted the cops that harassed them during frequent police raids. Now known as the Stonewall Riots, these violent confrontations are often pinpointed as the start of the modern gay rights movement. The first of what would eventually be called Gay Pride marches were held the following June, 1970, in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Chicago.

To pin my personal landmarks onto this larger board: 1970 was the year that my young husband and I graduated from college in New England. Eager for fresh experiences, we decided to get our graduate degrees in the Midwest, a section of the country that we’d never seen. So we packed our VW bus and moved to Minneapolis. As we unpacked our suitcases, another couple was also unpacking. Like us, they were young, educated, and free-spirited. Their names were Jack Baker and Michael McConnell, and they would soon cause a cultural earthquake when they openly declared “I do” in the nation’s first gay marriage.

While I took classes for my master’s degree at the University of Minnesota, I heard about Jack Baker. Actually, everybody—on campus and beyond—heard about Jack Baker. A law student at the University of Minnesota, he was elected the first openly gay student body president. Not only that, he did such a fine job representing student interests that he would win an unprecedented second term.


Jack's infamous "shoes" poster, 1971.
Photograph by Paul Hagen.


Jack’s personal life was more newsworthy than his campus accomplishments: He and his lover, Michael McConnell, had applied for a Minnesota marriage license in 1970. Promptly denied by officials, they took the issue to court. Meanwhile, the University of Minnesota had offered a job to Michael as a librarian, but the Board of Regents refused to approve his appointment. So Michael mounted a lawsuit to protest overt job discrimination.

Two ongoing lawsuits didn’t dismantle Jack and Michael’s dream: They came up with another way to form a legal family unit—by adoption. In the process, Jack changed his name, and the couple managed to obtain a valid marriage license from a rural county. In September of 1971, they enjoyed a widely publicized wedding ceremony in Minneapolis, officiated by a Methodist minister. Their nuptials made headlines in newspapers as far away as New York and California. They were interviewed on TV and featured by Look magazine.

My history intersected with Jack and Michael’s story when, my master’s degree in hand, I applied for a writing job.

As student body president, Jack had campaigned for and insisted on students’ rights. He proposed that a student sit as a nonvoting member of every Board of Regents committee (a tradition that continues to this day on the University of Minnesota campus). He established a student-owned and student-run corporation. This corporation wanted to hire somebody to write their press releases and reports. I heard about the job and thought the work would be energizing—heady, as well as important. The world was a’changing, and I wanted to help make change happen.


Gail Langer Karwoski is an author and educator based in Athens, Georgia. She worked closely with Michael McConnell and Jack Baker, America's first legally married gay couple, to tell their story in The Wedding Heard 'Round the World: America's First Gay Marriage.

At 7 p.m. on Tuesday, January 26, the Elmer L. Andersen Library at the University of Minnesota will host a book launch for Michael, Jack, and Gail. All three will be on hand to speak and to sign books. The night will mark the opening of an exhibit based on Michael's and Jack's archived material. The Michael McConnell Files were donated to the University of Minnesota's Tretter Collection for GLBT Studies in October 2015.


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