Soon the couple relocated to Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota, McConnell to take a job at its library and Baker to study law. He joined a campus group called FREE (Fight Repression of Erotic Expression), an early gay-rights group.
"The fear then wasn't that you'd be discriminated against, that was a given," said Jean Tretter, a member of FREE who went on to decades of gay activism in Minnesota. "You were a lot more afraid that someone might come after you with a shotgun."
Baker and McConnell — educated, clean-cut and handsome — contrasted with the typically scruffy counterculture activists of the era. But the Hennepin County attorney blocked their bid for a marriage license, a decision upheld by a district judge and affirmed by the state Supreme Court with reasoning that echoes in today's arguments against gay marriage: "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."
Asked via email why they pursued the case, Baker wrote, "The love of my life insisted on it."
It was a stormy time for the couple. Soon after McConnell relocated to Minnesota, the University of Minnesota's Board of Regents yanked his job offer because he was openly gay; the U.S. Supreme Court rejected his separate lawsuit to get it back. In April 1971, amid both legal dramas, Baker was elected and then a year later re-elected as president of the university's student government.
Two decades after the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed Baker v. Nelson, the Hawaii Supreme Court in 1993 ruled that homosexuals had a constitutional right to marry. It started the ball rolling on a movement that has seen many victories and setbacks since.
"Jack was the politician — outgoing and effective, manipulating the material world," said Roger Lynn, a retired Methodist pastor who performed a marriage ceremony for the men in 1971, and who remains in touch with them occasionally. "Michael was the librarian, detail-oriented, more introverted. They were a good match, and they're still making it work."
In a strange twist to their story, Baker wrote via email that he and McConnell would be personally unaffected if Minnesota legalizes gay marriage. In 1971, about 18 months after Hennepin County rejected their application, the couple traveled to southern Minnesota's Blue Earth County, where they obtained a marriage license on which Baker was listed with an altered, gender-neutral name.
That license was later challenged in court but was never explicitly invalidated by a judge. While Baker recently predicted on his blog that gay marriage would be legalized in Minnesota soon, he emailed that he and McConnell don't see a need to make it official in Hennepin County.
"We are legally married," Baker wrote.