Hundreds of gay couples — dressed in formal suits and striped trousers, gowns and T-shirts — recited vows in emotion-choked voices and triumphantly hoisted their long-awaited marriage certificates Sunday as New York became the sixth and largest state to recognize same-sex weddings.
Couples began saying “I do” at midnight from Niagara Falls to Long Island, though New York City became the sometimes raucous center of action by daybreak as couples waited on a sweltering day for the chance to exchange vows at the city clerk’s office.
Thousands of protesters rallied in several cities around the state, a signal that the long fight for recognition may not be over just yet.
But a party atmosphere reigned in the lobby of the Manhattan clerk’s office, with cheers and applause breaking out whenever a couple was handed their white-and-blue wedding certificate. Balloons floated overhead. One couple wore matching kilts; another wore sparkly crowns. Children scurried up and down the lobby; workers with bullhorns called out the numbers of each couple.
Poignant signs of pent-up emotion were common from couples who had in some cases waited for years to wed. Couples cried and voices quavered. Newlywed Douglas Robinson exclaimed “You bet your life I do!” when asked whether he would take Michael Elsasser as his spouse.
The first couple to marry in Manhattan were Phyllis Siegel, 77, and Connie Kopelov, 85, who have been together for 23 years. Kopelov arrived in a wheelchair and stood with the assistance of a walker. During the service, Siegel wrapped her hand in Kopelov’s hand and they both grasped the walker.
Witnesses cheered and wiped away tears after the two women vowed to honor and cherish each other as spouses and then kissed.
“I am breathless. I almost couldn’t breathe,” Siegel said after the ceremony. “It’s mind-boggling. The fact that’s it’s happening to us — that we are finally legal and can do this like everyone else.”
Outside afterward, Siegel raised her arms exultantly as Kopelov, in the wheelchair, held out a marriage certificate.
New York’s approval of same-sex marriage is viewed as a pivotal moment in the national gay rights movement and was expected to galvanize supporters and opponents alike. The state joined Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont, along with the District of Columbia, when it voted last month to legalize gay marriage.
Protest rallies were planned in Manhattan, Buffalo, Rochester and Albany on Sunday. Activists unhappy that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) and state lawmakers legalized same-sex marriage last month are calling for a statewide referendum.
Several hundred people crowded into the street across from Cuomo’s Manhattan office to protest the new law. They waved signs saying “Excommunicate Cuomo” and chanted “Let the people vote!”
“I’m here for God’s sake,” said Steve Rosner, 65, of the Lower East Side. “To sanctify same-sex marriage is an abomination. It’s beyond belief.”
Hundreds more protested on the steps of Buffalo’s City Hall and at the state Capitol in Albany.
Clerks in New York City and about a dozen other cities statewide opened their doors Sunday to cater to same-sex couples. Some judges waived a mandatory 24-hour waiting period that allowed couples to exchange vows moments after receiving licenses.
In Manhasset on Long Island, Dina Mazzaferro and Robin Leopold of Great Neck got married in the North Hempstead town clerk’s office with their 8-year-old daughter, Sasha, and Robin’s mother, Barbara, watching. The elder woman wiped away tears during the brief ceremony while Sasha mouthed some of the words along with her parents.
The couple has been together 15 years.
“We’ve been waiting for this day,” Leopold, an attorney who works in the Queens district attorney’s office, said after the service. “And now we’re waiting for the day it becomes legal on a federal level. It’s a wonderful thing that the town has been so embracing of this.”
Initially, New York City officials had projected that about 2,500 couples might show up at the city clerk’s offices hoping to get married Sunday, but by the time a 48-hour lottery had drawn to a close Thursday, 823 couples had signed up — 59 more than the city had planned to accommodate. The city said it would perform ceremonies for all 823.
The festive atmosphere included couples who posed for pictures in front of a photo backdrop of City Hall and bought T-shirts saying “I got married in New York City” from the clerk’s office gift shop. In Brooklyn, an elegant reception was held in Borough Hall with champagne and a lineup of cakes — one with a two-men cake topper, another with two women and a third with a heterosexual couple.
There were some glitches, though. In Brooklyn, Eufemio Torres and John Torres were told incorrectly by a city employee that they could not wed Sunday because Eufemio had only a Mexican passport.
“Our hearts sank. But I’m a fighter, and we were not going home,” said John Torres, a legal secretary.
Soon after speaking with the Brooklyn borough president’s chief of staff, the pair stood before a judge in the hall’s elaborately wood-carved main chamber. Eufemio Torres cradled a bouquet of white lilies and orchids, and the men took their wedding vows.
The day began with some couples exchanging vows right after midnight. In Niagara Falls, gay rights activists Kitty Lambert and Cheryle Rudd were legally married the first moment they could be during a midnight ceremony.
With rainbow-lighted falls as a backdrop, Lambert, 54, and Rudd, 53, were among the first gay couples to tie the knot with the state’s blessing. Lambert and Rudd, who have 12 grandchildren between them, have been together for more than a decade and had long been fighting for the right to marry.
The couple, both from Buffalo, smiled broadly as they exchanged traditional marriage vows, promising to love and cherish each other in sickness and in health. A crowd of several hundred people cheered as they were pronounced married and shared their first kiss.
“What an incredible night this was,” said Lambert, who wore an electric-blue satin gown with a sequined train for the ceremony and carried a bouquet of blue hydrangeas. “Everything was absolutely perfect.”
In Albany, Mayor Jerry Jennings performed marriages at 12:01 a.m. Sunday in the Common Council’s chambers.