Pulse Twin Cities April 8, 2004
How gay marriage got divorced from gay rights
by Tim Campbell
The early years
Jack Baker and Mike McConnell applied for a marriage license on May 18, 1970 in Minneapolis. That is the first known gay marriage license application. The Clerk of District Court for Hennepin County summarily refused to issue them a license. Subsequently, Baker and McConnell went to Blue Earth County in southwestern Minnesota and got a license on August 16, 1971, from a different clerk. They were married on September 3 using that license. The Rev. Roger Lynn, a United Methodist minister, performed the ceremony.
That gay marriage required a little legal detour. In early August 1971, Baker changed his name to Pat Lyn McConnell. Consequently, the names on the license are Pat Lyn McConnell (aka Jack Baker) and J. Michael McConnell. They wanted the same last name in case they acquired children.
Baker was in law school at the University of Minnesota. McConnell had just been nominated as an instructor and chief cataloguer at the university library on the St. Paul Campus. In the wake of monumental news coverage over this controversy, the students at the University of Minnesota elected Baker student body president. The University Board of Regents, on the other hand, reacted by withdrawing McConnell’s nomination as a library head and university instructor.
During this media onslaught, Jack and Mike received four large boxes of mail from all over the world. I have met people who saw articles about the event in newspapers in both Paris and Athens. Most of the mail was supportive.
Moreover, Jack’s victory at the student polls was probably the first instance of a vote by the general, non-gay public, on attitudes towards gays. That vote made one thing clear: the time had come for gay rights.
The Baker-McConnell dispute also produced a wave of copycat gay marriages throughout the country. I was a graduate student at the University of Texas in Austin at the time. There, I was invited to at least five gay marriages. One drag queen even asked me to marry her. Worse yet, I accepted. Fortunately, we both forgot about it when we sobered up.
Tell the whole truth. The bulk of that rash of gay weddings involved drag queens with butch-looking lovers. They were, however, performed by ministers. Most of them did not last longer than a good underarm deodorant. None of them, to my knowledge, involved real marriage licenses.
Gay marriage was not exactly a brand new idea, even back in 1970. Jean Genet described one in a novel in 1943 and John Rechy did so in 1963.There were big differences, however. The Baker-McConnell wedding involved same-sex appearance. It was intended to produce social stability like a straight marriage. By contrast, the Genet and Rechy gay weddings were staged to look like opposite-sex marriages and designed to scoff at society. They were not intended to produce social stability.
Baker and McConnell are still together to this day. In fact, they have been together a total of 38 years now, 34 of those married. Sure beats Britney Spears’ marriage record! Also beats the records of Zaza Gabor and Liz Taylor.
Decades of lawsuits
Baker and McConnell ended up in decades of legal haggling because of their marriage. The Minnesota Supreme Court upheld the clerk who denied them a license. Its decision cited the Book of Genesis. Jack and Mike appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. There, Warren Burger and cohorts dismissed their appeal for lack of a “substantial federal question.” How would they rule today? Who knows. President George W. Bush certainly wants to turn gay marriage into a substantial federal issue now.
Baker, now a lawyer, argues their marriage was and remains valid since there were no laws or court decisions prohibiting same sex marriages on September 3, 1971. He notes: “Every court recognizes this basic principle: that which is not prohibited is permitted.” The Minnesota marriage statute actually has a section listing non-valid marriages. Same-sex marriage is not on that list. Baker argues their marriage is in fact more solid legally than the recent ones in San Francisco. Those marriages were performed after laws against same-sex marriages were passed.
Jack and Mike Had a Dream
Legal considerations aside, Jack and Mike’s genius was to perceive long before most, that the right to marry is an essential part of gay civil rights. Their point is: the fundamental right for gays and lesbians is the right to fall in love with and marry the person of one’s choice. Without that right, there is no such thing as gay rights. “It’s nonsense,” said Jack long ago, “to find two people (both competent to marry) incompetent because they chose each other.”
Many gay marriage activists say the right to choose your own spouse is probably the most characteristic social right of modern western democracies. Such a right was unheard of in ancient China. It’s a right rarely granted in the “oily-garchies” of the Middle East. Many contemporary Jews are still loath to marry outside their religion. Back in the `50s, Catholic parents hoped that none of their kids would marry outside their Church. Unthinkable was marrying outside one’s own race. But times changed. Times change because young people dare to love outside the box. They always have. They probably always will.
While the news of the fight over gay marriage and McConnell’s job denial were fresh in the minds of the public and elected officials, Baker went to the Minneapolis City Council looking to include gays and lesbians in the city’s civil rights ordinance. Council Member Ed Felien, now editor of Pulse of the Twin Cities, took on the task and authored such a bill. It was passed unanimously in 1974 amid virtual silence on the council. Felien said recently, “They (the city council members) were afraid to say anything against it.” This put Minneapolis on the map as the leader in gay civil rights legislation.
Enter the Democrats
Minneapolis and Saint Paul also beat the rest of the country to the idea of separating the right to marry from the rest of gay civil rights. This was in direct response to Baker and McConnell’s marriage.
The anti-marriage contingent included, among others, Alan Spear, a gay history professor who represented the University of Minnesota neighborhood as a State Senator. Spear tiptoed out of the closet to a small circle of friends once Baker got elected student body president. He proposed to author a gay rights bill on the state level. Senate Majority Leader Nick Coleman Sr. agreed to help. Spear and Coleman were both career Democrats.
Coleman’s motive was that he was married to Debbie Howell who had a gay brother. I suspect Howell’s brother came out to them after Jack got elected student body president. That made me and hundreds of others come out. Howell herself was a wig at Minnesota’s main daily newspapers. In 1975, she wrote Alan Spear’s going public interview for the Minneapolis Star newspaper. Minnesota being a small pond, this trio constituted a power block.
Sex, Drugs and Secret Parties
(I mean fundraisers)
Spear and Coleman hired a part time lobbyist named Steve Endean to shepherd these gay rights bill through the state senate. There were a number of hearings and amendments before all the ordinances finally settled in. Endean was a piece of work. He was in his early 20’s, a college dropout, and stood only about 5 feet, 6 or 7 inches tall in a chubby frame. Everybody called him “Weebee.”
By day Endean lobbied at city halls and on Capitol Hill. By night he checked coats at popular gay discos—first at Sutton’s which has since folded, then at the Gay `90s which is still the biggest gay bar between Chicago and San Francisco. After bars closed, “Weebee” almost literally lived in the local gay bathhouses.
With all this gay contact, Endean got to know both the important closet gays and the hottest young gay guys. He was great at organizing private parties, hand picking guests from both groups. Some of the more outrageous called it “pimping.” Those parties rivaled the ones in Larry Kramer’s novel, “Faggots: Drugs, sex and rock and roll.” This was how gay money began to flow into the hands of Democrats back then.
Drag queens and the Baker-McConnell crowd were not invited to these secret, late-hour fundraiser parties. Baker and McConnell didn’t notice or mind being left out of the parties, but the drag queens did. Eventually, they went to the State Legislature en masse, in drag, to demand inclusion in the gay rights bill. What’s more, the drag queens won.
Gay marriage, on the other hand, was never included in Minnesota’s gay rights legislation. Sadly, the Spear-Coleman-Howell laws were carefully crafted to exclude the “crazies.” That meant the drag queens and radicals like Baker and McConnell who wanted gay marriage. The laws also left the University of Minnesota exempt from all these pieces of legislation.
The civil rights laws in Minnesota, scripted in the 1960s, had four parts: employment, housing, public services and public accommodations. The Spear-Coleman-Howell laws added gays and lesbians to those sections of said laws that dealt with employment and housing only. They did not add them to the sections of the same laws that dealt with public services and public accommodations.
Previously, public services and public accommodations referred to places like hotels, restaurants and barbershops. Nobody could decide exactly where marriage licensing fell. Was it a public service? Was it a public accommodation? They didn’t know.
Nonetheless, they were sure they weren’t going to push gay marriage and drag queens on anybody. Whenever the proposed legislation had a setback, Spear and Endean would cuss the “crazies,” that is, Baker-McConnell and the drag queens. They hardly worried about the wild parties. Note, however, that everybody agreed, even back then, that full gay rights would include gay marriage.
The Spear-Coleman-Howell triumvirate got gay rights laws introduced at the state capitol pretty soon after the Minneapolis and St. Paul ordinances were passed. Still, it just sat there. It never got out of committee and never came up for a vote in the whole house and senate. A public discussion of gay rights was not happening. Spear excused himself saying: “I don’t want to get some legislators in the habit of voting against gay rights.” Unfortunately, no one had to fight very hard for the bill either. The State of Minnesota did not pass a gay rights law until much later: 1993. Rural Minnesota dragged its feet.
Half-measures exported to Washington, D.C.
In about 1976, Spear and friends let the Minnesota legislation lie fallow and sent Endean off to Washington, D.C., to work with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. He eventually founded the Human Rights Campaign. He figured even closeted gays would write checks to a group so broadly named. “Weebee” eventually died from AIDS but the groups he influenced have been resisting gay marriage ever since the `70s. They consider their compromise wise like Solomon. Democrats around the country have adopted the same “pragmatic” approach.
For example, Barney Frank, the openly gay Democrat from Massachusetts who sits in the U.S. House of Representatives, is currently notorious for his criticism of the gay marriages now occurring in San Francisco. Ironically, his constituents keep electing him even though he rented an apartment downstairs of his own dwelling to a well-known gay prostitute. Naturally, Frank claims he didn’t know. Clinton’s not the only dumb Democrat.
Supporters of gay marriage, on the other hand, consider this opposition a fungus growing under the nails of Democrats. While this may make easier work for politicians, gay marriage supporters insist it’s not very practical for their goals.
Alan Spear has now retired from the Minnesota Senate and lives with his longtime partner, Jun, a Japanese immigrant, in central Minneapolis. He reports that he and Jun have not yet gone anywhere to get a license or a civil union. “We’ve thought about it, but done nothing. Just laziness, I guess,” he said recently. Then, he added, “We don’t really need it.” At least Spear has been consistent!
The half-measure maneuvers of these Democrats did not reap many benefits for gays and lesbians in Minnesota. In the intervening years, practically no gays and lesbians have filed complaints with any civil rights departments anywhere. Someone in a position analogous to Mike McConnell, can’t even file a complaint under the ordinance because the University of Minnesota is exempt.
The bottom line is: More gays and lesbians have applied for marriage licenses this year in San Francisco in one week than have filed discrimination complaints throughout the country since 1975. That suggests lots of gays think the right to marry is a very important right. One might call it a “substantial federal issue.”
[Baker-McConnell web site: www.may-18-1970.org]
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posted by Tim Campbell at 12:44 PM 0 comments