Thirty-four years ago, the union of two University graduate students sparked the debate over gay marriage rights. Now, the same couple might bring itself back into the limelight as the two men file a joint federal tax return.
In 1970, Jack Baker and Mike McConnell became the first gay couple to seek legal marriage. When the state denied their license, the couple took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to review it, saying a homosexual’s right to marriage was not a substantial federal question.
“It was the first case of two normal-looking guys presenting themselves as gays,” said Tim Campbell, a friend of the couple and fellow activist.
Baker and McConnell no longer do interviews and refused to comment for this story. The couple lives in Minneapolis, where Baker is a lawyer and McConnell is a librarian.
Campbell said the couple is filing a joint tax return this year, an issue that will likely be resolved only by the Supreme Court.
“Their position would be that they were legally married back in the ’70s,” Campbell said.
Campbell met Baker and McConnell in 1971 at a gay issues discussion shortly after University students made Baker the first openly gay student body president at a major university.
As a doctoral student at the University’s Morris campus, Campbell taught French and teaching methods in the early 1970s but was let go because of his heavy drinking.
Motivated by the couple’s courage and activism, Campbell quit drinking in 1973 and began advocating gay rights, outing himself in the process.
After leading sensitivity training sessions alongside the couple and taking over their annual Minneapolis gay rights parade, Campbell began and ran the first successful gay newspaper in the Twin Cities, the GLC Voice, for 14 years.
“I went through my life not realizing that gay was an option,” he said. “I will be eternally grateful to Jack Baker and the like for showing me the way out of darkness.”
Although Baker would not comment on the possibility of filing a joint tax return, he did not deny Campbell’s claim.
University law professor Dale Carpenter said he is pessimistic about the couple’s chances in court.
“My guess is that ultimately, the state will not find marriage laws unconstitutional,” Carpenter said.
However, Baker and McConnell have always had realistic expectations for the fight for equality.
At the time of their union, McConnell predicted it would take 30 years for same-sex couples to win equal marriage rights.
By order of the Vermont Supreme Court, on April 26, 2000, then-Gov. Howard Dean signed into law the right to same-sex civil unions.
Such unions provide same-sex couples the same financial benefits as married couples, as well as the right to make medical decisions traditionally reserved for spouses.
In November, the Massachusetts Supreme Court announced same-sex civil marriages should be protected under that state’s constitution.
Now, political pundits say gay marriage will be a significant cultural issue for upcoming presidential debates.
Kathy Hull, a University sociology professor, said the issue could decide a close election “if the Republicans decide to bring a lot of attention to the issue.”
Jonathan Kahn, a University political science professor, said he does not think either party will focus on cultural issues such as gay marriage. However, he said it could have a small impact in some states.
Last week, President George W. Bush promised in his State of the Union address to “defend the sanctity of marriage.”
“Bush is walking a really fine line,” Hull said. “He wants to maintain his image as a compassionate conservative, but at the same time he wants to get the Christian conservatives to the polls.”
“Politicians are always looking for the easiest ways to do things,” Campbell said. “Visionaries are looking for the most difficult ways to do things.”