Minnesota Historical Society

A Court Refused To Recognize This Gay Couple As Married—47 Years After They Applied For A Marriage License

Minneapolis's James and Pat McConnell were the test case for marriage equality, decades before "Obergefell v Hodges."

A Minnesota court has denied a gay couple fighting for recognition of their marriage, which took place almost 50 years ago.

Michael McConnell and Pat Lynn McConnell (then known as Jack Baker) applied for a marriage license in Hennepin County in May 1970, but were denied because they were both men. McConnell submitted a second license request in 1971, this time in Blue Earth County. This time, though, he listed his “fiancée” as Pat McConnell, a woman, and it was initially approved.

But the county attorney’s office eventually caught on and their union was never recorded.

They tok their case to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which ruled marriage was “a union of one man and woman… as old as the book of Genesis.” A final appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was declined in 1972, when the high court cited a lack of a “substantial federal question.”

After Minnesota became the 12th state to legalize marriage equality in 2013, though, McConnell filed for a court order requiring Blue Earth County to officially record and recognize their license. A district court denied his request, and on Tuesday the Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld that decision.

The court found that the McConnells suffered no “particular harm” from not having their 47-year-old license recognized. But in addition to being a symbolic victory for equality, dating their marriage back to 1971 could retroactively change the couple’s tax status and provide other benefits.

In 2013 Pastor Roger Lynn, the Methodist minister who performed their ceremony 47 years ago (above), told WCCO-TV he was still in touch with the McConnells. They were still together, he shared, and still in love. “It was one of my more successful marriages.”

The McDonnells have declined to remarry since federal marriage equality was enacted, as they believe their union from 1971 is still valid. They were the first same-sex marriage test case in the U.S., and serve as a reminder that the fight for marriage equality went on for decades before Obergefell v. Hodges.

In fact, the same year their license was invalidated, activists from the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) walked into the New York City Marriage License Bureau with coffee and cake for an “engagement party” for two male men.

The protestors took over the bureau, protesting city clerks who threatened legal action against same-sex “holy unions” being performed by the Church of the Beloved Disciple.

Just two years later, in 1973, Maryland enacted the country’s first ban on same-sex marriage.

Dan Avery is a writer-editor who focuses on culture, breaking news and LGBT rights. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, Time Out New York, The Advocate and elsewhere.