In 1971, when I was just old enough to “read” the paper (or the captions under the pictures, anyway), I ran across a photo in the back pages of my home newspaper, the Quad City Times, of two men trying to marry. I showed the picture to my mom, seeking an explanation. I knew, as every child knew, that boys married girls, not each other. My mom quickly responded with an answer prevalent at the time: “They’re sick.” She was technically correct: Throughout most of the 20th century, homosexuality was classified as a mental illness. In the words of psychiatry, homosexuality was seen as representing a “severe maladjustment.”
I now know that I was looking at a photo of Richard John Baker and James Michael McConnell as they stood before Gerald Nelson, the Minneapolis clerk who denied them a marriage license. As has been widely reported, Baker and McConnell asserted their right to marry all the way to the United States Supreme Court, where the case was dismissed for want of a “substantial federal question.” In some respects the Supreme Court’s response was tepid. Other courts presented with “evidence of homosexuality” were more forceful in their denunciation. At the time, homosexuality was both criminal and evidence of insanity. Gays and lesbians were societal pariahs who faced either incarceration or institutionalization.
Yet during this time, gays and lesbians persisted in asserting their rights and their humanity. They were fighting for recognition before the courts, in the streets and at the ballot box. Baker and McConnell’s attempt to obtain a marriage license was sandwiched between the Stonewall riots in 1969 and Madeline Davis’ and Jim Foster’s address before the Democratic National Convention in 1972. They, along with countless others, refused to accept the status quo.
Nearly a decade earlier, in 1962, Martin Luther King Jr. challenged members of a Dartmouth College audience to stand up against oppression and join the growing civil rights movement. In his now-famous speech he embraced the concept of maladjustment, the very term associated with homosexuality, and equated challenging the status quo with some of the most recognized and admired names in American history:
Modern psychology has a word that is probably used more than any other word in modern psychology. It is the word “maladjusted.” And suddenly we all want to live the well-adjusted life in order to avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities. But I say to you, in my conclusion, that there are certain things within our social order and in the world to which I’m proud to be maladjusted, to which all men of good will must be maladjusted until the Good Society is realized. I never intend to adjust myself to segregation and discrimination. So I say the world is in desperate need of maladjusted men and women … [a]s maladjusted as Abraham Lincoln, who in the midst of an age amazingly adjusted to slavery, had the vision to see that this nation could not exist half slave and half free; as maladjusted as Thomas Jefferson, scratching across the pages of history words lifted to cosmic proportions, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And I believe that through such maladjustment we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man, into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice. If we will but do this, we will be participants in the creation of a new society, the creation of a great America.
He was right. Fifty years after his speech, 40 years after the Supreme Court decided Baker v. Nelson and 20 years after the Human Rights March on Washington, D.C., in which a million gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals and their allies descended on Capitol Hill to demand equality, we are in a new era. We are here because people like Jack Baker and Michael McConnell and Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer refused to accept the status quo; they refused to adjust to a society that assigned them second-class status. Like Dr. King, they were proud to be maladjusted, and we all benefit from such courage.
This article was published on 3/8/13 by Huffington Post. Read it here.