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The first legal same-sex marriage in the U.S. happened in Minnesota in 1971

Jack Baker (left) and Michael McConnell have been married for nearly 50 years thanks to a lucky mistake.

Jack Baker (left) and Michael McConnell have been married for nearly 50 years thanks to a lucky mistake. Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

If you’re at all familiar with the (very recent) history of same-sex marriage, the year that springs to mind is probably 2015, when it was legalized nationwide.

Or, maybe it’s 2003, when Massachusetts became the first state to recognize marriage equality.

But it turns out, there is a legal gay marriage that came before both of those events, and it happened right here in Minnesota. This is the story of Richard John “Jack” Baker and Michael McConnell.

They met in 1966, at a Halloween barn party outside McConnell’s hometown of Norman, Oklahoma -- a place owned by an acquaintance and perfect for socializing with gay college guys. A friend tugged on McConnell’s sleeve and told him there was someone he “had” to meet, claiming the two were “destined for each other.” McConnell was rolling his eyes until he laid eyes on Baker.

“When he flashed his movie star smile at me,” McConnell wrote in his memoir, The Wedding Heard ‘Round the World, “I forgot to breathe.”

It looked as though McConnell’s friend had been right. The two of them quickly fell in love. The memoir includes a photo of the two of them in 1970, young and fresh-looking as they bowed over a little dinner table in Minneapolis. There’s a piano tucked against one wall, with a guitar leaning snugly against it. Light streams in through the windows. The two sit across from one another, leaning forward, ignoring a bleary little television set sitting on the far end of the table.

There’s no indication in the photo that the two are about to make history.

LGBTQ Nation reports that Baker and McConnell applied for a marriage license in Hennepin County that same year, before marriage equality was even a twinkle in Massachusetts’ eye. It was summarily tossed out, of course -- by both Hennepin County and the Minnesota Supreme Court.

But later, they applied again -- this time in Blue Earth County. The clerk reportedly didn’t realize the certificate was for two men and issued Baker and McConnell a license by mistake.

They were just fine with that. The couple had a quiet ceremony at a friend’s house, with a Methodist minister, in the early fall of 1971. Their cake featured a lacy, heart-shaped crown and two little figurines dressed in fancy jackets and black top hats.

The flub was discovered once the certificate made its way back to the state level, but rather than toss it out, the county attorney told the clerk not to record it. The marriage was never dissolved. Baker and McConnell were wed, and Minnesota went right on pretending they weren’t.

“Every couple,” McConnell wrote in his memoir, “feels like they are creating their own universe.” For him and Baker, he continued, that was closer to the truth. Their marriage sent shockwaves throughout the nation and the world. The two of them received “thousands” of letters from all over the United States, Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Israel, India -- all praising them for taking a bold and unprecedented step toward equality.

“Of course, we didn’t think of ourselves that way,” he wrote. “We were young and in love… But we did understand that were jump-starting social change by tossing a monkey wrench into an antiquated system.”

Years passed, and Baker and McConnell continued to live their lives as married men. They were still together in 2003, when Massachusetts made its big announcement. And in 2015, when marriage equality became the law of the land. And in 2018, when a Minnesota district court finally acknowledged their union as “in all respects valid.”

The only thing that remained was getting the federal government to recognize it as such, which finally happened a few weeks ago -- right after Valentine’s day. That’s when they got a letter from the Social Security Administration confirming that their 1971 marriage was legitimate, and they were finally entitled to monthly husband’s benefits.

As far as Baker and McConnell go, it’s external validation for something they both knew years ago: They were in love, and pledged to each other, for life. The two of them are in their 70s now, and still happily married after nearly 50 years.