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Jack Baker & Michael McConnell: Lunatics or Geniuses?

By Thomas Kraemer

Lovers Michael McConnell and Jack Baker before their recent marriage in Minnesota
Photo By: Kay Tobin Lahusen from The Gay Crusaders
Jack Baker and Michael McConnell received national attention in the 1970s for seeking a marriage license after they noticed Minnesota law did not prohibit same-sex marriages. One of them also adopted the other to legally bind their relationship. Then they applied to adopt a child only to be rejected. Simultaneously, they were fighting McConnell's case of job discrimination and challenging corporations that refused to hire homosexuals. Jack also consulted with the pre-Stonewall era Washington, D.C. gay activist Dr. Frank Kameny, whose picture is part of the GayToday masthead and who was fired by the Federal government for being gay.

Until last month, their story had not been completely told because of Jack Baker's refusal to do interviews with many reporters and historians. For example, Jack Baker turned down an interview request from the authors of the 1999 book Out for Good, which included several chapters on Minneapolis/St. Paul (a.k.a. Twin Cities) activists. (Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney, Out for Good, Simon & Schuster, 1999, p. 328, 575, 599) Likewise, the authors of the book Courting Justice, which is about gay related Supreme Court decisions, had similar trouble. (See 'Separate but Equal?' Scrutinizing the Sodomy Decision: http://gaytoday.com/viewpoint/070703vp.asp

Writer Kay Tobin and Randolfe Wicker, whose pictures are also included in the Gay Today masthead, profiled Jack and Michael in their 1972 book The Gay Crusaders. While Tobin is supportive of gay marriage rights, Wicker recently wrote an opinion piece questioning gay marriage. (Randolfe Wicker, "Gay Marriage is a Heterosexual Trap," http://www.gaytoday.badpuppy.com/garchive/viewpoint/042400vi.htm

Fortunately, Ken Bronson, a self-described amateur historian and Chicago native, was inspired to write Jack and Michael's history by Barbara Gittings, another pre-Stonewall era activist whose picture also appears in the GayToday masthead. Bronson said he vaguely thought that the idea of gay marriage had started in Hawaii in 1993 until he heard Gittings talk about Jack and Michael's 1970 marriage.

Incredibly, not only did Bronson investigate Gittings' story, but he managed to get the full cooperation of Jack Baker and Michael McConnell. They gave him access to their files of letters and documents from the 1970s. On May 18, 2004, the 34th anniversary of their marriage application, Ken Bronson self-published a web site and an Acrobat PDF format book titled, A Quest for Full Equality, which summarizes their history and includes many heretofore unseen source documents. (See http://www.may-18-1970.org and http://www.may-18-1970.org/Quest.pdf for a copy that includes his source notes. Note that the printed PDF page numbers, included in parenthesis below, differ from the Acrobat reader status bar page numbers.)

Instead of trying to duplicate Bronson's fine work, I want to amplify on some of the things I found particularly interesting in his 100-page long history piece. Also, most people, including myself, considered Jack Baker to be a lunatic in the 1970s, but I want to argue that in hindsight he was a true genius.

I avidly read this history not only as a gay history buff, but also because I was an eye witness to the University of Minnesota gay liberation movement in the early 1970s. I was 16 years old and had just received my driver's license when Jack Baker was getting married in 1970. I used my new found freedom to participate in several children's art programs at the Walker Art center and Tyrone Guthrie Theater, where I met many gay people in the nearby and notorious gay cruising area of Loring Park. At age 17, as a freshman fine arts major at the University of Minnesota, I regularly attended campus meetings for gay men. (A few lesbians would attend but they often felt oppressed by chauvinistic gay men.) For some reason, it seemed like everybody was either a male nursing student or theatre arts major.

I hesitate to call my self a participant because I readily admit that I was just a dumb and horny teenage boy cruising for sex. By the time I started college, Jack Baker had been elected student body president and I naively assumed the gay rights battle had been won. I was also completely ignorant of the past history and struggles of gay people. I didn't even know that sodomy (including oral and anal sex) was against the law in Minnesota. Thankfully, I was never arrested or mugged in Loring Park while I was in high school.

I sense that the young queer college students of today also naively assume their rights are a given. However, unlike my generation, today's youth have never seen human rights arbitrarily denied for no good reason. Because of this, I worry their complacency will allow anti-gay marriage amendments to be passed, which will lead us down a slippery slope where we lose all of our previously hard won gay rights. (See 'Separate but Equal?' Scrutinizing Oregon's Marriage Law http://gaytoday.com/viewpoint/032204vp.asp

Even though I was in the closet while in high school, Jack Baker and John Preston's leadership motivated me to be openly gay from my very first day at college. I truly thought that I had nothing to fear. John Preston later moved on to become editor of The Advocate and a famous author of gay S&M literature before his death a decade ago. (Bronson, p. 24, 32, 54, 89, 92)

Being totally out and open about my sexual orientation went fine at first. It was enthralling to meet intelligent people at gay liberation meetings, despite not fully understanding what they were saying.

The ten or so other guys who lived in my dormitory wing thought I was weird but at least they politely tolerated my existence. Most of them had grown up in small towns or on Minnesota farms where Midwest politeness was an expected virtue. I didn't realize how true this was until I started to meet "impolite" students from back east.
Jack Baker

The next year, a seriously homophobic fraternity boy and varsity soccer jock moved into my dorm wing, apparently because there was not enough space in his fraternity house. He made my life hell. In a moment of weakness, and after weeks of finding that University officials would do nothing about a gay basher, I hit him on the shoulder hard enough to allegedly draw blood and I ran back to bolt myself in my room. The next day the University Police called me to their office so they could arrest me for assault and battery!

I quickly got an education in gay bashing. Everybody thought it was normal for an all American straight boy to be so disgusted by homosexuality that he would hit a queer. And everybody blamed the "homosexual" victim for being open about their sexual orientation. I learned that gay rights did not exist even on a campus with a gay student body president.

I was fortunate to retain a gay attorney who had just graduated from the University of Minnesota law school. He tried to plea bargain that I was a victim of gay bashing who had struck back only in self-defense. Coverage of the case and a large photograph of me were above the fold on the front page of the Minnesota Daily student newspaper, which was read by more than 50,000 people. I was now completely out.

The University decided to prosecute my case in a quasi-judicial student conduct proceeding. Professor of Law Robert E. Oliphant was in charge of it and he seemed completely unsympathetic to my problem. I was suspended from school for one year.

As quoted in Ken Bronson's book, Jack Baker's 1970s diary recalls that Professor Oliphant and the law school dean worked against Baker's court cases either out of bigotry or because they did not want the State Legislature to cut their budget. (Bronson, p. 9) In a 2003 email, Oliphant called Bronson's depiction as "partly fact, partly fiction, and possibly partly defamatory." (Bronson, p. 61 has complete text of Oliphant's email reply)

Curiously, when Bronson produced legal papers to allow Oliphant to talk further about his confidential discussions with Baker, Oliphant declined to get more specific. In his 2003 email, Oliphant claimed, "It was my personal belief at that time - - and continues to this day - - that homosexual couples should be allowed to marry." While this may be true, Oliphant appeared unsympathetic to the harassment I had endured for being gay. I sincerely question how enlightened Oliphant really was about gay issues back then.

Incredibly, the University allowed the gay basher to break his dormitory contract and move into his fraternity house. The University also cancelled my dormitory contract, making me homeless and unable to continue my education in Minnesota.

But it got worse. When I went back to the dormitory to move out, the dorm director was waiting there to have me involuntarily committed to the University mental hospital, where gay activists had staged protests about the use of shock treatments to cure homosexuals.

My attorney immediately requested a commitment hearing before a judge. He submitted copies of the just announced 1973 decision by the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from the list of mental disorders. The Judge ordered I be released despite a dual diagnosis of schizophrenia that had been added to my hospital record. (See "Why Do Ex-Gays Matter?" for more on mental illness, religion and medical cures for homosexuality, http://gaytoday.com/viewpoint/120803vp.asp

My dad graciously bought me an airplane ticket to San Francisco so that I could transfer my college credits to the University of California at Berkley and start over in time for spring term. He did not approve of my homosexuality but even he could see that I was being unfairly treated by homophobic school administrators. This experience was so traumatic, that I have never been able to write or speak about it until today over three decades later. I can fully understand why Jack Baker would remain silent for so long.

I was not alone in having to start over. Michael McConnell also had to start over when the University of Minnesota reneged on their job offer to him for a librarian position because he was openly gay. (Bronson, p. 32, 42, 76) Jack Baker is proud that McConnell flourished. Despite this setback he has since been honored as a librarian along with Barbara Gittings who, as previously mentioned, was the inspiration for Bronson's history. (See "Barbara Gittings Awarded American Library Assn's Top Honor," http://gaytoday.com/events/022403ev.asp

I am not legally insane according to a judge. (However, I am proud to be psychotic!) But were Baker and McConnell lunatics or geniuses? Bronson quotes Baker as saying that he and Michael were called the "lunatic fringe" by the "suits." (Bronson, p. 38, 40, 42) Baker was referring to the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party lobbyists who wore suits to collect money and votes for Democratic candidates from gay people.

I presume the "suits" included Steve Endean, who eventually became one of the first national gay rights lobbyists in Washington, D.C., and Allan Spear, who came out in the 1970s during his three decades of service in the Minnesota Legislature. Bronson quotes Spear as saying, "Only the lunatic fringe had any interest in marriage." (Bronson, p. 8 and Tim Campbell, "Gay Marriage - The Early Years," Pulse of the Twin Cities http://www.pulsetc.com/article.php?sid=1015

In addition to being a State Representative, Allan Spear was a history professor at the University of Minnesota and the faculty advisor for the college magazine I worked on. In meetings about the magazine, I remember him being shockingly abrasive and opinionated. I was not surprised to read he had castigated Michael and Jack in the early 1970s for daring to apply for a marriage license. (Bronson, p. 8)

Also consistent with the lunatic label, the ACLU parent organization in New York did not think same-sex marriage was a civil liberties issue, although the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union was willing to help McConnell fight his job discrimination case. (Bronson, p. 9, 29, 42) Historian Vern L. Bullough has also described a similar reluctance by the ACLU in the 1960s to recognize homosexuality and sexual identity as being an issue that involved civil liberties when he was a board member of the ACLU of Southern California. (John P. De Cecco, "Vern L. Bullough," in Before Stonewall, edited by Vern L. Bullough, p. 363)

From The Gay Crusaders by Kay Tobin and Randy Wicker: One of the posters for Jack Baker's successful campaign for University of Minnesota student body president. (Paul R. Hagen) However, before you can label Baker as a lunatic, you must look at what he did and compare it with the various factions of the gay liberation movement. Bronson provides some raw source material in the appendix and he also cites numerous contemporaneous accounts that give a good picture of what Jack Baker actually did.

One fascinating document included in Bronson's appendix is Jim Chesebro's meeting minutes from the first national gay liberation conference held in Minneapolis. (Bronson, pp.51-60) Representatives from all over the country attended, including a representative from GAY, the national weekly newspaper edited in Manhattan by Jack Nichols and Lige Clarke. (In a personal communication, Jack Nichols recalls this representative was Howard Erickson.)

Bronson provides a summary of this meeting (pp. 11-12) but he does not include descriptions of each group. While reading Chesebro's original 1970 meeting minutes, I found myself scribbling down the old 1960s terms I had forgotten to help me remember what the various factions were about.

Many people saw the major gay rights factions naturally clustered as follows:

1.) Liberationists or separatists - were gay people who wanted to break away from the sexual and gender constraints of society. The Gay Liberation Front groups represented at the 1970 meeting had the majority of attendees and they mostly shared these ideals.

2.) Establishment, assimilationists, or integrationists - were gay people who wanted to be integrated into society. The "suits," as Jack Baker derisively calls them, included groups such as the Gay Activist Alliance and the Mattachine Society.

3.) Radicals or revolutionaries - were gay people who believed a revolution was needed to overthrow society's oppression of homosexuals. Many radicals were from ethnic and racially oppressed groups or anti-war anarchist groups.

As I recall, and as contemporaneous documents cited by Bronson confirm, gay liberationists were mostly concerned with sexual freedom. They wanted freedom from the rigid gender roles imposed by society that prevented men from showing emotion and forbid women doing a man's job. (Today's college students are always surprised when I explain that newspaper help wanted ads used to be divided up into men's and women's jobs.) Liberationists also wanted the freedom of being able to have sexual relationships between consenting adults of their own choice instead of being forced into oppressive and monogamous marriages. This type of thinking has greatly diminished as heterosexuals have gained these freedoms and gay people have succeeded in overturning the sodomy laws. Unfortunately, gender oppression remains common because few people object to being forced to act like a man or a woman.

The establishment types called for evolution through incremental changes that would not excessively rock the boat of society. Today, this type of thinking is embodied by those who are calling for civil unions instead of fully equal marriages for gay people.

Radicals and revolutionaries often modeled themselves after the Black Panthers and the Third World Revolutionary brothers. Similar thinking is found in today's radical environmental groups, which range from those who just want to "throw a monkey wrench into the system," all the way to those who support violent terrorist activity to overthrow the system. Today, Eugene, Oregon harbors many anarchists and environmental radicals.

At the 1970 Minneapolis gay liberation conference, John Preston stunned the audience by describing his meeting with the Parti Quebecois in Quebec where radical gay groups were seriously considering mass genocide and suicide of gay people. Chesebro "strongly noted that the existence of gay liberation groups would preclude such actions." In retrospect, I wonder if John's story was factual or just his active sadomasochistic imagination. However, having met dedicated radicals back then, I also believe his story could be true. (Bronson, p. 54)

By the above standards, Baker doesn't neatly fit in any major faction. I would define gay radicals as being lunatics. Baker was clearly not a radical although he became more radical as time went on. Baker worked within the system, but also against it.

Chesebro says Baker asserted that his group, FREE, was "non-political" and emphasized "civil rights." (Bronson, p. 52-53) This prompted Third World Gay Revolutionaries to question Jack Baker if FREE was racist. Chesebro notes some members of FREE "had some success in getting FREE's non-political stance changed to endorse the Black Panther Party as the vanguard for all oppressed people. While passed by the group, the labels radicals, fanatics, and revolutionaries has (sic) been used to describe the people supporting a political stance for FREE."

I had forgotten that being "political" was defined as being supportive of other revolutionary groups including anti-Vietnam war groups. However, by today's definition of "political" most of Jack Baker's actions were political even though later on his cohorts became more radical by throwing pies at anti-gay Catholic Archbishops and crusaders such as Anita Bryant who had "targeted" the city of St. Paul to successfully overthrow the City's gay civil rights ordinance. (Bronson, p. 39) Bronson relays a wonderful story from Jack Baker of how a local TV station colluded with gay activists so they could get the exclusive pictures of Anita Bryant being hit with a pie. I guess unethical behavior by reporters was justified to fight the evil of Anita Bryant and the Catholic Church.

"Street people" was another archaic term used at the 1970 Minneapolis conference. (Bronson, p. 57) Chesebro described a motion by the group that noted "street people - - white, homosexual, hippie, drug, welfare cases - - are rejected and not related to by white, middle class radicals." The meeting was deeply divided over issues of racism, sexism, gender, and class. In addition, a representative from Iowa noted they had no gay bars and therefore did not share the concerns of New York City. (Bronson, p. 59)

Similarly, one male wanted to reject the "new homosexual" described in a December 1969 Esquire article as "using dope and fucking women." I guess this was a reference to the rise of sexually liberated heterosexual swingers who felt free to ball with their own sex especially during a sex orgy. Balling is another archaic term from this period. It was considered less oppressive than sucking, screwing or fucking.

Bronson also describes how Baker, a lifelong Catholic, was shown in "Look" magazine receiving Communion at a University chapel run by Rev. William C. Hunt. (Bronson, p. 7) This chance event caused Rev. Hunt to be involved in the discussion of the moral status of homosexual activity for more than 30 years. (See Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities http://www.mtn.org/~cpcsm and Other Major Volunteers: Dr. William C. Hunt, STD, Theological Advisor http://www.mtn.org/~cpcsm/about.htm

An interesting footnote said Look, which was a national photo magazine competing with Life magazine, was published in Iowa by the same company that owned the Minneapolis newspapers. (Bronson, p. 83) Baker suggested the magazine went out of business because of portraying his same-sex wedding as being an equal alternative to other heterosexual lifestyles. Magazine industry experts disagree with this reason, but many subscribers actually did cancel and send angry letters to the editor.

Other documents of interest in Bronson's book include Paul R. Hagen's own statement (Bronson, p. 20, 24, 63) about how he designed Jack Baker's famous "Put yourself in Jack Baker's shoes!" campaign poster that showed high-heels on a masculine dressed Jack. At first, they worried bigots were stealing the posters until they started seeing them adorning the walls of campus residences.

The complete text of Jack Baker's 1971 University of Minnesota commencement speech (Bronson, p. 22, 65) is incredibly good. In front of thousands of parents and students, Baker talked about racism, sexism, class discrimination, and then described how he was affected by heterosexism because he was gay. I submit this speech as partial evidence of his genius.

Another indication of Jack Baker's genius can be seen in a speech he gave to 2,000 students at the University of Winnipeg in 1972. The complete text was printed in the "Manitoban" student newspaper and Bronson includes the complete text in an appendix. (Bronson, p. 7, 69) Baker said that having his lover adopt him was a "political strategy." Note the change in definition of the term "political" from just two years earlier.

Baker's speech also contained ideas that are only now becoming recognized. For example, he explained how the existence of intersex individuals makes it impossible to define what a man and a woman are for purposes of marriage. Concerning forced gender roles he talked about the "Marlboro concept," which referred to the desire of men to be like the famous cigarette advertising icon of a hyper-masculine cowboy. (One actor who played the Marlboro Man was gay and loved by many gay men before he died of AIDS. See Mike Wilke, "Commercial Closet: Marlboro, Jeep target GLBT market in Europe," http://content.gay.com/channels/finance/gfn/commercialcloset_marlboro.html

Baker rejected a reporter's suggestion that "effeminate homosexual" males would "ruin" his efforts. He rejected psychological theories that your parents make you gay and joked about being a "latent heterosexual" because he had fucked a girl in high school.

Optimistically, Baker's 1972 speech predicted that same-sex marriage would be legal by the end of the decade and his decision to pursue it was "intended, literally to throw a monkey wrench into the works." This is an example of how his speech was starting to adopt the language of radicals and revolutionaries. (Bronson, pp. 71-72)

Another indication of Baker's "political involvement" was the gay rights plank of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. (Bronson, p. 32, 74) Baker and other gay activists called for the full equality of everyone and "Minnesota legislation redefining marriage as a civil contract between any two adults." Today, mainstream liberals, such as Al Franken, support this idea, but back then this idea was considered to be lunacy. I think this further shows the genius of Baker. (See The O'Franken Factor http://www.gaytoday.com/viewpoint/052404vp.asp

Baker was certainly ahead of his time concerning gay marriage, but he was also standing on the shoulders of pre-Stonewall era giants. (For example, see James T. Sears, PhD, "1953: When ONE Magazine Headlined 'Homosexual Marriage'" http://gaytoday.com/reviews/081103re.asp )

The Rev. Dr. Troy D. Perry Bronson and Baker question the claims of Rev. Troy Perry and The Advocate about who performed the first gay marriages. (See Reverend Dr. Troy D. Perry, Founder and Moderator, Metropolitan community Churches, "Whose God Do You Serve?" http://www.gaytoday.com/viewpoint/060704vp.asp - accessed 6/9/04 and "1968: The Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches begins conducting holy-union ceremonies for lesbian and gay couples," http://www.advocate.com/html/stories/810m/810m_timelines.asp

Also, Rev. Troy Perry's web site says, "As you may know, MCC's Rev. Troy Perry performed the first recorded, public same-sex wedding in the United States in 1969. In 1970, MCC filed the first-ever court suit seeking legal recognition for same-sex marriages in California. That lawsuit was lost -- but it launched the movement for same-sex marriage rights. And in 2003, a lawsuit brought by Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto resulted in the establishment of legal LGBT marriages in Canada. Your efforts during Valentine's Day Week 2004 -- and your efforts in the days ahead -- will help bring marriage equality to all LGBT people." http://www.mccchurch.org/valentinesday/ReportValentine2004.htm

Bronson lays out a case that credit should go to Methodist Rev. Roger Lynn, who solemnized Jack Baker and Michael McConnell's marriage in 1971. (Bronson, p. 25, 46, 67) While Baker was denied a marriage license in 1970, he succeeded in getting a legal marriage license in 1971 after being adopted by Michael. The IRS tacitly agrees Baker's marriage is legally valid, but they say the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act forces them to ignore it for federal tax purposes. (Josh Verges, "Gay rights at issue as couple files joint taxes: In 1970, two then-University students were the first to seek gay marriage," Minnesota Daily, http://www.mndaily.com/articles/2004/01/29/8060 - January 29, 2004)

Rev. Lynn notes that a homophobic Baptist minister, who tried to cut the funding of his charitable organization in retaliation for performing the gay marriage, was a closeted homosexual. Lynn tells Bronson that the strongest opponents against him doing the gay marriage appeared to be closeted gay men based on their conversations about "how those disgusting homos do it." (p.68) Fortunately, John Preston was able to intervene through other religious organizations. Dr. George Weinberg in his 1972 book linked homophobia with repressed homosexuality. (See Society and the Healthy Homosexual http://gaytoday.com/reviews/111003re.asp

Other facts of interests Baker recently dug out of the Minnesota Historical Society archives. Apparently, an unethical and clandestine "press council" was set up by the "Minnesota Press Association" to undermine Baker's gay marriage case before the courts. Baker's quest to pass the bar and get a license to practice law was also actively opposed by many of the Minnesota Supreme Court Judges.

Justice C. Donald Peterson violated the Code of Judicial Conduct to act as chairman of the press council. He attended the secret court deliberations, wrote the court's opinion, and cited the "book of Genesis" to conclude that gay men and women are not "persons" in the courts of Minnesota! The behind-the-scenes story of homophobic and corrupt judges is terrifying to read. Baker was lucky to survive. (Bronson, p. 27)

In McConnell's job discrimination case, the Eighth U.S. Court of Appeals piled on and accused him of trying to force employers to approve of his repugnant lifestyle. They suggested that if a homosexual kept his views private then the Court might be more sympathetic about a homosexual who was fired for being gay. (Bronson, p. 28)

When Jack Baker became student body president he successfully forced Honeywell Corporation to reverse their policy of not hiring homosexuals by threatening to deny them campus recruiting privileges. Picking on Honeywell was not a coincidence. As a producer of war hardware, they were a popular target of anti-Vietnam war protestors.

At that time, Honeywell was headquartered in Minnesota and employed many local graduates. Baker was probably successful because Honeywell clearly had a sense of community and they did not want to be seen as discriminating against anybody. Honeywell headquarters were recently moved back east due to a company merger. I wonder if the result would have been the same if they had not been part of the local community back then. (Bronson, p. 35-36, 38, 75, 86)

Bronson describes how Baker's anti-discrimination college recruiting policy became the standard in academia. Baker feels the finest compliment was paid by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in his dissent to the 2003 sodomy decision. He noted that in an earlier opinion he predicted "the fact that the [Association of American] Law Schools (to which any reputable law school must seek to belong) excludes from membership any school that refuses to ban from its job-interview facilities a law firm (no matter how small) that does not wish to hire as a prospective partner a person who openly engages in homosexual conduct." (See Bronson, p. 36, 41, also Lawrence v. Texas. 156 L.Ed.2d at 541 and 'Separate but Equal?' Scrutinizing the Sodomy Decision http://gaytoday.com/viewpoint/070703vp.asp -

In conclusion, I firmly believe Baker and McConnell's gay activism was a work of genius. They were called lunatics because few people grasped the long-range significance of gay marriage. This has only recently proven to be the flashpoint in the war for full equality. Politicians can no longer hide behind a doctrine of "separate but equal" rights for gay people without also being exposed as hypocrites.

As Baker's history becomes more widely recognized, I hope it will inspire more people to join the "revolution" for full equality that Baker and McConnell help start. President Bush has launched a preemptive strike against gay people with the anti-gay Federal Marriage Amendment. We must defend ourselves against the anti-gay crusaders.
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