Last August, while visiting friends in Vancouver, Esther Lee and Lisa Chun, romantic partners for six years, decided to get married. They knew the marriage would have no standing in the United States. But they had never had the option to marry before. So they figured: Why not?

In February, Lee and Chun wed in San Francisco, where they live, during the first weekend that the city began its month-long experiment in granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples. They knew the city's burst of civil disobedience might not stand up in court. But they wanted to be part of the historic moment, symbolic or not.

Come July, they are getting married again. They are going to Boston for the Democratic National Convention -- Chun is an at-large delegate -- and so have another excuse to get hitched. "This time," Lee said, "I want a cake."

Lee, 31, a district representative for California Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, and Chun, 48, a former investment banker who runs a property-management company, have been hoping to legally marry for years. They have no idea whether any of their marriages will hold -- opponents of gay marriage are fighting its legality in Massachusetts, and oral arguments for and against the same-sex marriage licenses granted in San Francisco are scheduled to be heard in the California Supreme Court on Tuesday. But Lee and Chun know they are like many other same-sex couples.

In fact, among those who were married in San Francisco and Portland, Ore., before court orders stopped them, Lee and Chun are the norm. Most couples were longtime partners with property and domestic partnerships between them. The vast majority -- at least in San Francisco, which tracked such demographics -- had a college education or more. Most were not youngsters, but adults in their middle years.

And the majority of the same-sex couples who wed in Portland and San Francisco were women. In San Francisco, 2,311 of the couples who married between Feb. 12 and March 11 were female and 1,715 were male (with 11 couples of unknown gender), or a split of 57 percent to 42 percent. In Portland, 2,141 couples who married between March 3 and April 20 were female and 881 were male, or 71 percent to 29 percent. On the first day of same-sex marriages in Massachusetts, two-thirds of the couples who applied for licenses were female, according to a Boston Globe survey.

No one can say why, exactly. No studies have been done on the phenomenon.

Christmas Leubrie, 54, a nurse at San Francisco General Hospital who wed Alice Heimsoth, 52, a health care worker in the city AIDS office, after 19 years together, speculated that many men who would otherwise have partners have lost their longtime companions to AIDS. "We do know a few male couples our age who have been together a long time," Leubrie said. "But we've lost more than three-quarters of our friends -- the first wave of men who died from HIV."

But they and other female couples who have wed recently guess there are other reasons for the women's marriage march. "Everyone wants to be a bride," Heimsoth said with a wide grin.

Or, as Chun put it, "women are socialized to be married."

Especially, she added, women who are conditioned to think that marriage is part of the package of success and fulfillment that comes with education and a good, well-paying career. She and Lee still struggle with what to call each other -- "wife" sounds too much like a term that goes with "husband," "spouse" too much like a word on an insurance form -- but they, like Heimsoth and Leubrie, have noticed that getting married has made a marked difference in their status as a couple.

People give them more credibility as a twosome. It's as if their getting married made a union they knew as rock-hard finally real to people.

"Straight women we know are just ecstatic for us," Chun said.

"It's funny," Lee added. "No one congratulated us when we became registered domestic partners and signed all these papers in a lawyer's office. No one said anything when we came back from Vancouver, either. But all of a sudden, it's as if we matter more."

In fact, after their marriage -- officiated by Burton on Valentine's Day -- they found tangible proof that they do matter more as a couple. Chun had been trying to have her name included on Lee's auto insurance policy without putting her name on the car's title, a privilege reserved for married people. The first business day after their wedding, Chun called the insurance agent who had denied her previous requests and told him that she and Lee were now spouses. The agent added her name. It is saving them more than $1,000 a year.

One of their initial reasons for wanting to marry -- the same reason they signed up as domestic partners -- was the fear that should one of them land in the hospital, the other would not be allowed to visit or assist in health care decisions. But now, they see the little perks of marriage. They have been getting mail they never received before. The other day, Bank of America's mortgage division sent them a congratulatory note on their nuptials, though they have co-owned their little Victorian house for four years. Gump's, the gift and housewares emporium, sent them (and every other same-sex couple that got married in San Francisco) an invitation to use the store's gift registry. Travel companies are sending brochures for honeymoon-type vacations and cruises.

"To me," Lee said, "it just shows up the difference between being registered domestic partners and being married."

Heimsoth and Leubrie notice the change as well. It's not just the solicitations from banks and brokers. ("We'd like to be among the first to congratulate you on your recent vows," said the letter from Morgan Stanley.) It's also the reaction from neighbors both in San Francisco and in the tiny Sonoma County town where they have owned a weekend cottage for over 15 years.

Because they were prominently featured in stories about the same-sex marriage blitz at City Hall (they credit their fancy outfits and the big cardboard heart they carried that proclaimed "Alice and Christmas Celebrate Love"), they have become minor celebrities. The theater in their weekend town put a sign on its marquee: "Congratulations Alice and Christmas." Leubrie said that co-workers who have been conditioned to think of gay people as aberrant have gone out of their way to tell her they no longer believe it.

"People have said things to me like, 'I was raised to think that you people are from the devil, but you're just like us,' " Leubrie said. "People have been so supportive. I don't think I've had a single negative experience."

Heimsoth and Leubrie were so exhilarated by the mood in City Hall the day they were married that they returned that weekend to act as witnesses. Leubrie was then deputized as a marriage commissioner and performed dozens of marriages.

And while she harbors no fantasies that the San Francisco marriages will "stick" in court, her wedding to Heimsoth has changed the way she feels about straight weddings.

"I had stopped going to straight weddings," she said. "It was too painful. It's really hard to celebrate things that you're excluded from. But now that I've been married, I don't feel the same as I did about straight weddings. I really feel like I'm just part of the rest of us."

She and Heimsoth had "married" before. In 1987, they exchanged vows along with 1,000 other same-sex couples in a ceremony outside the Internal Revenue Service building in Washington.

They expect they'll marry each other again someday, in the same outfits -- a cream-colored lace blouse and black trousers for Alice, a lilac silk and lace dress for Christmas -- that they wore both other times. "I've always said," Leubrie deadpanned, "we would just keep getting married until they make it legal. Let's hope we fit into the clothes."

Alice Heimsoth, left, kisses partner Christmas Leubrie at a rally in San Francisco in 2000 opposing a gay marriage ban.