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The History of Gay Marriage

Commentary by Tim Campbell

October is Gay and Lesbian History Month, an appellation accepted by groups as prestigious as the National Education Association. What better time to set the record right on the history of the contemporary drive for gay marriage?

Most of the news reports about gay and lesbian marriage in the media this year leave the impression that the very idea of same-sex marriage began in Hawaii in 1990. That is not true.

The idea of demanding legal gay marriage rights actually originated in Minnesota on May 18, 1970 when Jack Baker and Mike McConnell walked up to a Hennepin County counter in downtown Minneapolis and applied for a license to marry.

I use the Baker-McConnell marriage as the starting line for the contemporary drive for gay marriage because it got international news coverage, the couple received ten full boxes of supportive mail from gays and lesbians around the world, and because same sex couples have been getting married on a regular basis ever since -- without awaiting for approval from Democrats like Allan Spear, Paul Wellstone, or Bill Clinton.

Moreover, in the aftermath of this famous marriage, Jack Baker was elected Student Body President of the University of Minnesota, proving that young people of all orientations were ready for gay marriage.

The following year, Baker successfully completed a law degree and was licensed to practice in the State of Minnesota. McConnell went to work for Hennepin County's library system. Twenty-six years later, the two men are still living together contentedly in south Minneapolis.

Between 1970 and 1975, Baker and McConnell filed about eight different lawsuits related to their status as married persons, including one against the Hennepin County clerk who refused to issue them a marriage license. (The couple subsequently went to Blue Earth County and obtained a Minnesota marriage license using slightly different but legal names. ) That's definitely where the idea of litigating for gay marriage originated. The scenarios in Hawaii simply repeat what was first tried in Minnesota over twenty years ago.

In 1971, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in one of the Baker-McConnell cases that "the institution of marriage as a union of man and woman uniquely involving the procreating and rearing of children within the family is as old as the book of Genesis." Not surprisingly, opposition to gay marriage quoted that decision during recent debate over the Defense of Marriage Act in the U.S. House of Representatives. The oppositions' arguments haven't gotten any broader nor any less religious over the years.

Presently, Baker and McConnell are keeping low profiles and staying out of the battle over gay marriage. "We did what we did. The balloon is launched. We are perfectly happy to let the rest of you guys fight out the details. We have no interest in getting back into the middle of the noise," commented Jack Baker on July 14 while discussing the vote on the Defense of Marriage Act in the House of Representatives.

Now, the idea of gay marriage was not entirely new with Baker and McConnell. Jean Genet described a same-sex marriage in a boys' prison in France in his novel, "Our Lady of the Flowers," way back in the '40s ; and John Rechy described the marriage of a transvestite male and another male in his 1963 novel, "City of Night."

But prior to the Baker-McConnell marriage in 1970, most of the bar talk and pulp fiction about gay marriage envisioned marriages between one cross-dressing partner and one straight appearing partner. These marriages of "butches" and "fems" were to some extent simple parodies of heterosexual marriage. Jean Genet's same-sex marriages were meant to embrace outlaw status, not conformity.

Moreover, most middle-class, "straight-appearing, straight acting" gays and lesbians were as shocked and repulsed by same-sex marriages, or by the drag used to pull them off, as were bona fide heterosexuals.

Early supporters of gay rights like state Senator Alan Spear in Minnesota openly opposed gay marriage when Baker and McConnell were first in the news. He claimed back then that gay marriage was desired only by the "lunatic fringe."

Baker and McConnell struck out in a new direction. They were definitely middle-class, law-abiding, professional men who applied for a license through a legal institution and got married by a mainstream minister while acknowledging to all involved that both partners were of the male gender. They sent out a news release and accompanying photo of themselves both dressed in male garb cutting a wedding cake. Figurines representing two grooms in tuxedos topped the cake, literally.

The bottom line: Jack Baker and Mike McConnell started a revolution when they got married in 1970. They predicted at the time it would take 25 years to get same-sex marriages legalized. It looks like they'll be off by a year or two.

Tim Campbell is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis. He has been chronicling the gay rights movement since 1965.
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