MANKATO, Minn. – James Michael McConnell and Pat Lynn McConnell will celebrate 48 years of marriage this summer as the proud first same-sex couple in the U.S. to be issued a marriage license.

That’s a distinction that occurred 44 years before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. Both now are 76 years old.

There’s a backstory to the early issuance at a time all states restricted marriage licenses to heterosexual couples. 

The McConnell license was declared “defective” soon after the Blue Earth County Clerk’s Office issued it on Aug. 9, 1971. The county attorney ruled the license was obtained by trickery and blocked its official registration.

Protracted legal battles ensued.

It wasn’t until 10 months ago that a judge declared the marriage license “in all respects valid” and ordered it duly registered in its original date with the county clerk’s office and the state of Minnesota.

So how did the gay couple get a marriage license in the first place?

They used their wits.

Turned down for a license in Minneapolis, seat of Hennepin County, James McConnell adopted his partner Jack Baker, changing his name to Pat Lynn McConnell, for insurance purposes.

When they filled out the paper work in Blue Earth County, they listed their separate resident addresses, causing the clerk to believe they were man and woman, and issuing the marriage license.

Someone saw the license transaction in the Mankato Free Press’ local records listing, recognized the gay couple and word quickly spread to the county attorney.

McConnell and Baker insist to this day they had done nothing wrong. They said they had truthfully filled out the license application forms, and could not thus be denied a marriage license as there was no specific legal prohibition to same-sex marriage in Minnesota or the U.S.

“We followed the law to the letter, the county did not,” McConnell told the Mankato Free Press in a phone interview.

Baker and McConnell were 29 years old at the time, having met a few years earlier at a barn dance in Norman, Oklahoma. They later moved to Minnesota, became active in the gay rights movement, speaking at rallies and doing media interviews with local and national outlets, including Look magazine.

Baker, who goes by his birth name, said they were not the first to apply for a marriage license or the first to file a lawsuit to challenge society norms, but what made them different was insisting the government treat all citizens equally in their sexual preference for marriage.

McConnell and Baker’s friends and acquaintances have suggested a golden anniversary gala in 2021 for the couple. “They want us to have a big deal,” said McConnell.

They are included in a documentary exploring LGBTQ history in Minnesota since the gay liberation movement began in the 1970s. Entitled “Out North,” the two-part series airs later this month on the public television station in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Edie Schmierbach is a reporter for the Mankato, Minn., Free Press. 

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