Javascript is not enabled.

Javascript must be enabled to use this site. Please enable Javascript in your browser and try again.

Skip to content
Content starts here
CLOSE ×
Search
Leaving AARP.org Website

You are now leaving AARP.org and going to a website that is not operated by AARP. A different privacy policy and terms of service will apply.

Book Tells the Love Story Behind America’s First Gay Marriage

‘The Wedding Heard ’Round the World’ set off decades of debate over rights of same-sex couples

Michael McConnell, 73, and Jack Baker, 73, are photographed at their home in Minneapolis, Minnesota on July 1, 2015.Photo by Angela Jimenez www.angelajimenezphotography.com
Michael McConnell (left) and Jack Baker were both 73 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage was legal.
Angela Jimenez

The story of the first gay wedding in America is one that encompasses the fight for LGBTQ rights, a case before the highest court in the land and a remarkable relationship.

The issue of same-sex marriage first made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972, which at that time dismissed the case “for want of a substantial federal question,” thus establishing the precedent against legalizing same-sex marriage for decades to come.

member card

AARP Membership — $12 for your first year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal

Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine.

Join Now

The story of that first attempt to legalize marriage in the U.S. for couples of the same sex is documented in The Wedding Heard ’Round the World: America’s First Gay Marriage. Originally published in 2016 — on the heels of marriage equality becoming federal law — it tells the story of Michael McConnell and Jack Baker, who in 1970 became the first same-sex couple known to apply for a marriage license.

After the Minneapolis couple was denied their license, they filed a lawsuit and fought their way to the U.S. Supreme Court. As McConnell poignantly writes in the “Married Life” chapter of the book, excerpted below, “Looking back on what I call this ‘landmark indecision,’ it seems like a crying shame. The highest court in our country walked away from a priceless opportunity to champion human rights. So many hours of effort, so many dollars spent, and so many tears have been shed in the intervening years to establish marriage equality. All of that might have been spared if only the court had showed more courage in 1972.”

​​It would be 43 more years before marriage equality became federal law. On June 26, 2015, in Obergefell v. Hodges, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that gay couples have a fundamental right to marry. In their verdict, the justices acknowledged the long struggle faced by McConnell and Baker that had preceded this landmark decision when they stated that “Baker v. Nelson must be and now is overruled.” ​​

It was a moment that McConnell and Baker, by then both 73 years old and living a quiet life in retirement, savored. As McConnell writes in the epilogue to the 2020 reissue of the book: “After forty-three years, our country’s legal system had, at long last, caught up with the simple, logical idea that we proposed when we were young lovers.”​

Enjoy an excerpt from The Wedding Heard ’Round the World: America’s First Gay Marriage, by McConnell and Baker, as told to Gail Langer Karwoski.

Prologue

Jack finishes dinner first and lays his folded napkin on the solid surface of our round oak table. How many times have I seen him do this? This man — my husband for more than forty years — hasn’t changed much from the young man I met when I was a college student in Norman, Oklahoma, in the sixties.

Flowers & Gifts

Proflowers

25% off sitewide and 30% off select items

See more Flowers & Gifts offers >

I know that everyone sees themselves at the center of their own stage, and every couple feels like they are creating their own universe. But for us, getting married really did set off tremors that ripped through the solid surface of our culture. After our union was announced, we received thousands of letters from around the United States, from Canada and Mexico, from Chile, Argentina, Norway, Israel, and India. The letter writers hailed our wedding as both a model for action and an inspiration for dreams.

Of course, we didn’t think of ourselves that way. We were young and in love. We were announcing who we were, pledging to love and honor each other, to uphold our commitment through sickness and health. But we did understand that we were jump-starting social change by tossing a monkey wrench into an antiquated system. Then we stood back, our arms around each other, and waited as the system struggled to reboot.

My husband is Jack Baker. He became the darling of the national media in 1970, the year he was elected the first openly gay university student body president. My name is Michael McConnell. Ours is the world’s first gay marriage.

The Wedding Heard ‘Round the World - America’s First Gay Marriage book cover, and 1971 photo of Michael & Jack showing their wedding rings
Book cover, University of Minnesota Press. Photos by Paul Hagen

From “Married Life” Chapter

Meanwhile, we were still awaiting the U.S. Supreme Court decision on Baker v. Nelson, concerning our Hennepin County marriage license. In this case, Jack had asked Minnesota’s Supreme Court to recognize an inherent right of same-sex couples to marry. The way he posed the legal question was critical — he purposefully framed the legal question so that it involved a state’s interpretation of the federal constitution. He knew the U.S. Supreme Court was required to review any case that came before it involving this kind of question. Furthermore, this kind of case would be allowed to bypass the lower courts and be appealed directly to the U.S. Supreme Court. (Congress has since abolished this option.) Lawyers for Hennepin County insisted that there was no need for the high court to decide our claim because all issues had been resolved when Blue Earth County issued us a marriage license.

In the fall of 1972, Jack entered his last term of law school with plans for a December graduation. That October, we finally received the U.S. Supreme Court’s reply: another fizzle. The judges dismissed our case “for want of a substantial federal question.” That’s courtspeak. Jack said it meant that the court was not ready to answer the question that our case posed at that time. In other words, the court did not reject our claim; instead, it chose not to hear our case, so Minnesota’s decision would be allowed to stand. Since marriage contracts are traditionally governed by the states, the U.S. Supreme Court would step into this area only if it saw a blatant inequality in a state’s action.

But the meaning of the words “for want of a substantial federal question” was fuzzy enough to cause a debate among legal scholars that lasted for over four decades. In a column carried by The New York Times (“Wedding Bells,” in the Opinionator, March 20, 2013), Linda Greenhouse wrote that the court’s action was “a formulaic way” to say “there is so little to this case that we don’t even have to bother hearing it.” She also wrote that our case has been cited as a precedent for courts hearing gay marriage cases ever since. (Perhaps that explains why the U.S. Supreme Court felt the need to declare “Baker v. Nelson must be and is now overruled” when it finally ruled on gay marriage in 2015.)

membership-card-w-shadow-192x134

AARP Membership — $12 for your first year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal

Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine.

Looking back on what I call this “landmark indecision,” it seems like a crying shame. The highest court in our country walked away from a priceless opportunity to champion human rights. So many hours of effort, so many dollars spent, and so many tears have been shed in the intervening years to establish marriage equality. All of that might have been spared if only the court had showed more courage in 1972.

I can’t say that either of us was surprised by the ruling, though. We’ve always dreamed big, Jack and I. But we’ve always been realists, too.

“We’ll just keep hammering away,” Jack said. “That’s all we can do. Keep it in the public eye. In the newspaper headlines.”

“What do you mean?” I said. “I thought the Supreme Court was the end of the road. We’ve gone as far as we can go.”

“The Supreme Court is the highway, but there are other ways to get where we want to go. We’ll take the back roads — like applying to the VA for spousal benefits. The IRS is another arm of government. They’ll have to rule on our marriage when we apply for a joint tax return.”

I groaned. “All that will take years.”

He shrugged. “Hey, we’re going to spend the rest of our life together. Right?”

Excerpt from The Wedding Heard ‘Round the World: America’s First Gay Marriage, by Michael McConnell with Jack Baker, as told to Gail Langer Karwoski, is reprinted here by permission. Published by the University of Minnesota Press. Copyright 2016, 2020 by Gail Karwoski. All rights reserved.