Connecticut became the third state to offer same-sex couples a legal way to unite, issuing its first licenses for "civil unions" Saturday in what seemed too low-key to be a milestone in a cultural fight that has divided the nation.

Here in Hartford -- where a rainbow flag hung outside City Hall and the clerk's office opened for special Saturday hours -- 26 couples came in to get licenses for the unions, which offer the same benefits as traditional marriage under state law.

Some, such as Pablo Santiago, 33, and Edgardo Rivera, 31, went directly to a justice of the peace and had the unions solemnized. Santiago and Rivera, of Hartford, had their ceremony in the atrium of City Hall, embracing after City Clerk Dan Carey said, "I now pronounce you partners in life."

"Wonderful," Santiago said afterward. "Everyone that's in love like we are should do the same thing."

Despite the smiles and occasional tears, this was nothing like the hoopla when Vermont began civil unions in 2000, or the midnight ceremonies that kicked off gay marriage in Massachusetts last year.

Couples acknowledged that, even as they did something that would have been unthinkable a decade ago, the thrill was not there. Full-fledged marriage was the ultimate goal, and this seemed more like an intermediate step.

"It feels good, but it doesn't feel like it will when we get married," said Peter Tognalli, 52, of Manchester, Conn., who had gotten a license with Bill Brindamour, 54, his partner of 27 years.

A few blocks away, in a deserted downtown that showed few signs of anything but Saturday going on, a Reclaim Connecticut Protest on the steps of the state capitol drew a few dozen opponents of civil unions.

Brian Brown, a leading opponent of civil unions in the state, told the crowd that much more political activism would be needed to fulfill their eventual goal: a constitutional amendment eliminating same-sex unions.

"This is a tragic day for our state's children," said Brown, whose organization, the Family Institute of Connecticut, contends that children develop best in a household with heterosexual parents. "We have a lot to do and a very short time to do it."

Connecticut, which had 7,386 households with same-sex couples in the 2000 Census, was the first state whose legislature approved gay unions on its own. Vermont and Massachusetts were forced to change their laws by order of their state supreme courts. Connecticut's unions bring no benefits under federal law, which does not recognize them.

It was difficult to gauge the number of couples who received licenses Saturday because the state government and many town halls were closed for the weekend. A spokesman for another large city, New Haven, said his town hall had been open but also was hardly overwhelmed: Ten couples applied for licenses.

The law here also includes a provision, added to satisfy conservatives, that explicitly defines the term "marriage" as only between a man and a woman.

The beginning of unions here comes at a polarized time in the national debate over same-sex marriage. Dozens of states have explicitly banned it, and opposition to same-sex unions in these areas has been credited with fueling conservative political strength.

But, in a few pockets of the country, proponents of same-sex nuptials feel they have the momentum. One such place is California, where legislators had approved same-sex marriage before the bill was vetoed last Thursday by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R).

Another is here in the Northeast. The feeling among many gay and lesbian couples in Connecticut is that same-sex marriage will be a reality here very shortly -- perhaps because of a pending court case similar to the one that set off the changes in Massachusetts.

"The classic American pattern of civil rights advance is a patchwork" of change state by state, said Evan Wolfson, executive director of the New York-based group Freedom to Marry.

As this larger debate was taking place, in recent weeks Connecticut had focused on the mundane bureaucratic and ceremonial details of creating a new kind of romantic union.

There was confusion among justices of the peace, who would perform many of these ceremonies. They complained that they did not know what to say at the end: I now pronounce you -- what? United? Civilized?

Government had not quite worked out all the kinks, either, as was obvious when, at 9:30 a.m. (30 minutes later than scheduled), city officials beckoned Lidia Agramonte, 47, and Maria Gomez, 50, of New Britain, Conn., into the clerk's office.

The pair had been waiting outside City Hall since 7:30 a.m. Soon, they would wait some more, while clerks figured out how to feed their forms -- so new they were not in the computer system -- through a typewriter.

Then came the typos: two of them, each necessitating a delay while clerks blotted out the errors, then waved the forms to get them dry.

And then, with TV cameras rolling, Assistant Registrar Tanya Rivera stumbled on the unfamiliar wording, first asking where the partners were going to be "married."

She corrected herself: "unionized."

But Gomez had a quip ready.

"I'll take marriage," she said.

Egardo Rivera, 31, left, and Pablo Santiago, 33, both of Hartford, Conn., are made "partners in life" in a civil ceremony at Hartford City Hall.

Katy Weber Tierney, 28, center, and Tracy Weber Tierney, 32, left, both of West Hartford, enter into their civil union Saturday on a plaza next to Hartford City Hall. Justice of the Peace Marie Hamilton officiated.