Long before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in June 2015, Michael McConnell and Jack Baker were just a young couple who wanted to get married.
But they were also two men, which in 1970 meant the union between McConnell and Baker, then both 28, wasn’t just precluded from being sanctified into marriage, but their homosexuality itself was also considered a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association.
Just three years later, the APA changed course and removed homosexuality from its list of disorders. That decision came just as the modern gay rights movement was starting to take off in the wake of the 1969 uprising at the Stonewall Bar in New York. The 50th anniversary of that event is being celebrated this month with parades and parties across the world.
And in America’s Midwest, McConnell and Baker are still living together as a married couple in their custom-built Minneapolis home. The two seem a paragon of domestic stability, married for 48 years and taking pride in pursuits similar to other retirees’, like gardening.
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Their title of the U.S.’s longest-married gay couple was, in fact, won after decades of legal fights for recognition of their marriage well before marriage equality began sweeping the globe in a campaign that’s cast them as forerunners.
“Everybody under the sun was trying to claim that it wasn’t legal,” Jack Baker told Reuters during a recent interview. “We wanted to stay together until we proved that the marriage was in fact legal. Aside from the fact that we were in love.”
In fact, the fight was so central to their relationship that Baker felt motivated to attend law school to fight for their marriage.
The two men originally met on a setup in 1967 in Oklahoma. Shortly thereafter, Baker popped the question.
“I told him when he proposed, ‘OK, I will commit to you but only if you can find a way for us to get legally married’,” McConnell told Reuters. “And I thought, frankly, that was going to deter him for a time.”
But the opposite happened, and Baker quit work as an engineer and enrolled at the University of Minnesota Law School to try and figure out a way. He had already experienced bigotry during his life for his sexuality, having been dismissed by the air force as a young man.
McConnell spent his career as a librarian in the Hennepin County library system in Minnesota. Now in their 70s, both men are retired and live in their Minneapolis home.
The men initially applied in 1970 for a traditional marriage licence in Hennepin County after they settled in Minneapolis. The county rejected them and the state Supreme Court upheld the rejection. So began a legal process that included the U.S. Supreme Court opting in 1972 against hearing the case for “want of a substantial federal question,” according to court documents.
“We knew this would be a long legal fight,” McConnell said, looking back on the decades.
One of the strategies pursued by the couple led McConnell to adopt Baker himself so as to afford the couple with increased legal rights such as representation in the event of an illness.
And upon being adopted, Baker changed his legal name to the gender-neutral “Pat Lyn.” The two then used that name on a marriage certificate with Mankato County, located 60 miles (95 km) south of Minneapolis. The county clerk’s office did not realize the couple was of the same sex as he certified the marriage, according to McConnell.
With a Methodist minister on hand, Baker and McConnell held a celebration on September 3, 1971, at a friend’s home.
Now married, the couple began seeking the benefits afforded to married couples, but they came across legal roadblocks. The last fight may have ended last year when a district court in Minnesota ruled that in the wake of marriage equality their original marriage is retroactively valid, allowing the couple to collect the social security benefits afforded to couples who have been together for almost five decades.
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“You want equal rights with the government passing out free money to the people who are being married. You want the gay community, gay men and women to have access to that and we crossed that issue and we had to push it and push it and eventually it caught on and it became the modern gay movement,” Baker said.
In the process, they’ve been a poster couple for gay rights and marriage, with profiles in the Washington Post, the New York Times and many gay outlets.
“The bottom line was we wanted some of those legal breaks,” McConnell said.
(Production by: Dan Fastenberg and Hussein al Waaile)