America's First Gay Marriage Lawsuit

Cristen Conger

The 1972 Baker v. Nelson case was the first lawsuit to fight for same-sex marriage.
The 1972 Baker v. Nelson case was the first lawsuit to fight for same-sex marriage.
© Ken Cedeno/Corbis

On June 25, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that same-sex marriage is a right. Here's the lawsuit that started the dominoes falling toward marriage equality.

On May 18, 1970, Jack Baker and Michael McConnell walked into the Hennepin County courthouse in Minneapolis, Minnesota, intending to obtain a marriage license. A veteran of the U.S. Air Force, Baker already had been fired from an air force base for being openly gay, but the rampant anti-LGBT discrimination and harassment of the era didn't hold him back from attempting to marry his partner.

The license was denied, and a Hennepin County judge upheld the decision with a nod to the Bible: "The institution of marriage as a union of man and woman, uniquely involving the procreation and rearing of children within a family, is as old as the Book of Genesis."

In 1971, the case Baker v. Nelson was heard before the Minnesota Supreme Court, which declared that same-sex couples had no fundamental right to marriage. The following year, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, saying that it failed to raise a "substantial federal question," and it would take until 1993 would the Hawaiian Supreme Court rule that barring same-sex marriage violated the state's constitution in one of the first significant court victories for same-sex marriage supporters. Nevertheless, the Baker case, which came on the heels of the Stonewall riots that brought national attention to gay rights, has been heralded as a significant milestone in the now-decades-long fight for same-sex marriage in the United States. Writing in The Advocate in 1994, Arnie Krantowitz said, "Nineteen seventy-one (with Baker v. Nelson) was the year we grew loud enough to be heard, and like us or not, America could no longer deny that we were there."

Jack Baker and Michael McConnell.
Courtesy: Elisa Rolle

Not until 2003 would the Supreme Court officially invalidate state-level anti-sodomy laws, and on June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court struck down section three of the Defense of Marriage Act that federally defined marriage as limited to heterosexual unions. A month before, on May 14, Minnesota became the 12th state to legalize same-sex marriage. Though they've long since retired from the gay activist spotlight, Jack Baker and Michael McConnell still live together in there more than 40 years after they brought the first gay marriage lawsuit to the highest court in the land.

Asked why they were willing to publicly challenge the homophobic status quo in 1970, Jack Baker told the Associated Press, "The love of my life insisted on it."