In 1971, gay couple Michael McConnell and Jack Baker applied for a marriage license in Blue Earth County, Minnesota. The clerk, not realizing one of the individuals listed on the application was male, issued the license — though stopped short of officially recording it.
Nearly five decades later — after a prolonged legal battle to get their union legally recognized — their wish was granted. The couple received a letter from the Social Security Administration on Feb. 16 officially validating their ’71 marriage. The McConnells (Jack took Michael’s last name) are now thought to be the longest-married, same-sex couple in the U.S. — and perhaps world.
“We knew from day one when we were legally married in 1971 that we were right — that we had followed the law to the letter,” Michael McConnell told NBC News.
After first being denied a marriage license in Hennepin County, Minnesota, in 1970, the men brought their widely publicized case to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which upheld the county’s decision. The McConnells appealed to the Supreme Court, which dismissed the case. The couple then figured out a loophole: Jack McConnell changed his first name to the gender-neutral name “Pat Lyn,” and Michael McConnell went to Blue Earth County to apply for a license alone.
Because Minnesota’s marriage statute did not explicitly state that two people of the same sex could not get married, the license was valid as far as they were concerned. But after it was revealed that “Pat Lyn” was male, the couple recalled, the county attorney instructed the clerk not to officially record it. With no proof of marriage, the McConnells explained, they could not collect Social Security spousal benefits, even after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015.
In September of last year, after a lengthy legal battle, a Minnesota district court judge ruled the marriage valid. In the letter they received from Social Security Administration in February, they learned they were entitled to spousal benefits. But to the men, the victory is about much more.
“This just simply proves that the first same-sex marriage ever recorded in the public files of any civil government anywhere in the world happened in Minnesota,” Jack McConnell said.
The couple, who penned their story in the memoir “The Wedding Heard ’Round the World: America’s First Gay Marriage,” exchanged vows during a small ceremony at a friend’s home in Minneapolis in September 1971.
Same-sex marriage was later legalized — first in Minnesota in 2013, and two years later across the U.S. by the Supreme Court. Now that their 1971 marriage is legally recognized, the men said they are finally vindicated.
“The bullies with power have been bullying us for all this time, and we won,” Jack McConnell asserted.
The McConnells received the Social Security Administration’s letter just days after Valentine’s Day. Michael McConnell said they celebrated the way they always do. “We had a glass of champagne and smiled a lot, and then we watched a movie,” he said.
The McConnells, who met in graduate school at the University of Oklahoma in the late 1960s, will celebrate 49 years of marriage in September.
Michael, a retired librarian, and Jack, a retired lawyer and engineer, said they were always proud of their relationship. Michael McConnell, who grew up in conservative Oklahoma, said being in a long-term relationship for him was “the rule.” Jack McConnell, an orphan raised in a Catholic-run boarding school, said he grew up determined to find someone who would always love him.
“I was going to find someone to grow old together with,” Jack McConnell said.
The Minneapolis couple, both longtime LGBTQ activists, remain steadfastly optimistic about the trajectory of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer rights. In 2017, they witnessed two black transgender representatives, Andrea Jenkins and Phillipe Cunningham, elected to their city council — a historical moment they said gives credence to their mantra: “Full equality for all people with no exceptions, no excuses.”
“That doesn’t matter what color your skin is, what your ethnic background is, what gender you are, how you identify yourself or anything,” Michael McConnell said. “It means full and absolute equality for all people.”