Long before the push for marriage equality truly began, before Obergefell v Hodges, before the Defense of Marriage Act, there was Jack and Michael McConnell.
This year Jack and Michael will celebrate 51 years of happy marriage, making them longest-wed same-sex couple in the world. They were also the very first.
Thanks to a clever legal loophole they managed to do it as early as 1971, exchanging vows before a Methodist pastor and a dozen guests in a friend’s apartment.
Ever since, they’ve maintained that theirs was the first lawful same-sex wedding in the US – but they had a decades-long fight ahead of them before the rest of the world realised it.
“I’m strong willed. I thought, ‘They’re not going to win,'” Michael told PinkNews. “I had my rights, and I was going to stand for them. If anybody under the Constitution can do certain things, so can I.
“They just picked on the wrong people.”
Their journey began in 1966, at a Halloween party in Oklahoma where the pair first laid eyes on each other.
“I was looking for the three T’s: tall, thin and 23. And believe it or not, at 24, I thought that time had passed me by!” Jack laughs. “But there was Michael, and the three T’s were standing right in front of me.”
Michael wasn’t quite as enamoured at first, though.
“Well, I was a little taken aback, because Jack had been in the Air Force and he had his hair in a really short, flat top style,” he said. “At that time most people in our community were doing the long Beatles-type hair. So I looked at him and thought, ‘I don’t know about this guy.’
“But my friend Cruz said, ‘Michael, you don’t know what you’re talking about. You two are destined to be together.’ And I think Cruz was absolutely right.”
Sure enough, their love blossomed as the couple went to movies or plays or secret parties with friends, always careful to stay under the religious radar to avoid attacks. After a year together Jack came to Michael with a proposal: he wanted someone to grow old with.
The question caught Michael off guard. “OK, I will commit,” he said, “but only on one condition. If we’re going to do this, you must try to find a way for us to get legally married.”
Jack gave him a long look, then said simply: “Well, I guess I’m going to law school.”
As promised, he enrolled the University of Minnesota and immediately set to work.
The first rule of law school was simple – what’s not forbidden is permitted. Jack seized upon this, realising the statutes only referred to marriage between “two parties”, not man and woman, which meant he could technically apply for a marriage license.
When their first attempt in 1970 was denied they fought it in the Supreme Court, where they lost their case in a one-sentence dismissal: “The appeal is dismissed for want of a substantial federal question.”
Undeterred, the couple simply figured out another loophole.
First Michael legally adopted Jack, which gave them inheritance and other legal protections. Then Jack changed his first name to the gender-neutral “Pat Lyn”, and Michael went to apply for a license alone. And this time, it worked.
The pair were wed before officials could change their mind; unfortunately, when it was revealed that Jack and Michael were both men, those officials declared the license invalid. Jack refused to accept their decision.
“Something as simple and totally obvious to a law student was not that obvious to the rest of the world,” he said. “It was a fight. We’ve been fighting ever since.”
They quickly understood that the biggest challenge was in changing public perceptions. At the time, many queer people were focused on repealing sodomy laws and stopping raids on gay bars, which Jack and Michael supported – but it wasn’t their focus.
“We knew the lies and the ignorance about gay people in our culture was going to be a big fight. It was going to be an educational fight. So we committed to educating the public.”
The couple made the decision to throw themselves into the public eye as spokesmen for gay equality, taking their love on tour by broadcasting their relationship to audiences in the millions.
It was an incredible step at a time when gay people were vilified as “sexual deviants” and the majority of states still criminalised consensual same-sex relations. But they could see it was the only way forward.
What we spoke to was love
“The discussion was focused greatly on sexual orientation, that is, defining our relationship as sexual in nature. That is not what we talked about,” Michael said.
“We talked about love, commitment, relationships, friends and family and building a life together. Sex is certainly a part of our life, a part to be celebrated, but it’s not who we are. We are much more than what we do in private.”
As Jack and Michael travelled round the state over the next decade, they estimate they spoke face-to-face with around 500,000 people in lecture theatres, halls and churches, and far more via TV and radio.
While they might’ve expected to be met with an enormous backlash, in reality the reaction was more mixed, even in religious circles.
It was years before the homophobic rhetoric of the AIDS crisis; many people were simply curious and peppered them with questions. How exactly did their relationship work, they asked, and what did they want to accomplish?
More often than not, straight couples would shyly approach them after the event for advice about intimacy problems.
“We actually did not encounter any bullying or any harm at all,” Jack recalls.
“Because what we spoke to was love, our commitment and our relationship, almost everyone could understand that,” Michael says, finishing his husband’s thought.
We’ve jerked everybody 45 years into the future
Ultimately though, Jack and Michael McConnell were just a few decades ahead of their time.
As the 70s passed and marriage equality was no closer, Jack says they realised “we’ve jerked everybody 45 years into the future, and it’s gonna take them a while to catch up”.
The couple eventually took a step back to focus on their careers and allow a new generation of LGBT+ activists to continue the fight. But they never lost sight of their goal, and refused to accept their marriage was invalid.
And nearly five decades later, they were finally proven right. The Supreme Court referenced them by name in the momentous marriage equality battle, Obergefell v Hodges, which officially overturned the case against their marriage.
“I saw it as vindication,” Jack said. “I knew from day one we’d followed the letter of the law, and [the Supreme Court] verified that what was intuitively obvious to a second year law student in 1971 was indeed correct. It only took, what, 40 years?”
“44 years,” Michael says.
Now as the couple look back on a life and a love that’s spanned the entirety of the modern equality movement, they feel hopeful: love is winning, as they always predicted it would, and it keeps on winning.
But even so, they can’t help but draw parallels between their experience and today’s struggle for trans rights.
“These right-wing crazies can’t attack gay marriage anymore, because it means attacking people like Jack and me, or their brother, their uncle, their aunt, their cousin. So now they’re going to try to find other people that they can label and lie about,” Michael said.
“And it’s not going to work. I can tell you, it’s not going to work, because it’s not natural. We’re all human beings. As long as we stand together, they’re not going to win.”
Now they’re leaving the fight to younger generations who are battling for the next round of LGBT+ rights – and it’s for these people that they’ve penned a book about their lives.
“We wanted to leave a story for them about how you can find your way and find the love you want,” Michael said.
“What I see in younger generations now is inspiring: they’re highly intelligent, they’re well connected all around the planet. And they have a vision that I agree with. It’s one that is based on love, not only for one another, wherever we come from, but for this planet that sustains us all.
“You can’t ask for more than that.”
Jack and Michael McConnell’s book, “The Wedding Heard ‘Round The World: America’s First Gay Marriage,” is out now in Paperback Original.