SAN FRANCISCO - Serenaded by a gay men's chorus, showered with rose petals, and toasted with champagne, hundreds of tearful same-sex couples got married across the state yesterday in what some are calling California's new Summer of Love.
Wearing everything from T-shirts to tuxedos and lavish gowns, they rushed down to county clerks' offices to obtain marriage licenses and exchange vows on the first full day that gay marriage became legal in California by order of the state's highest court. They were joined by jubilant crowds that came to witness the event.
George Takei, who played Sulu on the original "Star Trek," beamed as he and his partner of 21 years, Brad Altman, obtained one of the new gender-neutral marriage licenses - with the words "Party A" and "Party B" instead of "bride" and "groom" - at the West Hollywood City Hall. They are planning a September wedding.
"I see before me people who personify love and commitment," a grinning Takei told the crowd. He flashed the Vulcan hand salute from "Star Trek" and, in a twist on the Vulcan greeting from the TV series, said: "May equality live long and prosper."
The burst of gay weddings actually began on Monday evening, when a few counties extended their office hours past 5 p.m., the moment the May 15 California Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage took effect. Yesterday morning, though, all 58 counties began issuing licenses, and the rush was on.
There were scattered demonstrations outside some offices and courthouses. About a dozen protesters stood across the street from the Sacramento County recorder's office, carrying signs that read, "Marriage man + 1 woman" and "Resist Judicial Tyranny."
"It's something to just pray about. It's not a time to be joyful," 16-year-old demonstrator Juliya Lyubezhanina said as she watched dozens of balloon- and rainbow-flag-carrying couples.
Still, around the state, protesters were outnumbered by well-wishers. One conservative activist said that the effort to pass a constitutional amendment in the fall that would outlaw gay marriage again in California could fail if the opponents came on too strong.
"The major media would love to see us engage in fierce protests and hostile demonstrations of outrage against the licensing of same-sex 'marriages,' " said Ronald Prentice, chairman of the ProtectMarriage.com coalition. "Our battle is not against the same-sex couples who are pursuing the opportunity to 'marry' granted them by the activist judges on the California Supreme Court."
Some couples came from out of state. Unlike Massachusetts, the only other state to legalize gay marriage, California has no residency requirement for a marriage license. Many gay activists are likening the moment to the 1967 Summer of Love, when young people from across the country converged on California in what came to be regarded as the birth of the counterculture.
In a shady plaza in Bakersfield, where the county clerk stopped officiating at marriages altogether rather than preside over same-sex ceremonies, newlyweds wearing Cinderella-style gowns and matching tuxedos were showered with rose petals while a photographer who set up on a park bench offered to snap wedding portraits.
Although some couples said they preferred to wait until after the election because they feared their marriages would be nullified at the ballot box, others said they wanted to make history, especially if the opportunity to get married could be lost.
"There's a window, and we want to take advantage of that window, because who knows what's going to happen in November," said Jay Mendes, 40, as he and his partner of three years, Bantha Sao, 22, waited to obtain a marriage license in West Hollywood.
A recent Field Poll showed that Californians favor granting gays the right to marry 51 percent to 42 percent. It was the first time in 30 years of California polling that the scales tipped in that direction.
In Orange County, newlyweds Alfonso Guerrero, 48, and Manuel Chavez, 43, posed for a picture while deliberately standing in front of a protester wearing a "Jesus or Hell" cap and holding a large "Homo Sex is Sin" sign.
"It's another moment that we would conserve for history," Guerrero said. "They have the right to protest, but we have the right to marry. God loves everybody."
In a sign of the growing political support for same-sex marriage, the Los Angeles City Council president, the mayor of Sacramento, and at least two state lawmakers agreed to officiate at the weddings of staff members and friends.
San Diego County, typically a Republican stronghold, added four walk-up windows and assigned 78 employees to issue marriage licenses yesterday, up from the usual 19. More than 200 ceremonies were scheduled, better than double the average daily load.
The moment he heard the ruling last month, Mike Bray, 44, a computer network engineer from Oceanside, proposed over the telephone to his partner of five years, Tom Siemar, a 42-year-old interior designer. The couple wed yesterday.
"We didn't think it would happen in our lifetimes," Bray said.
In West Hollywood, an auditorium was turned into a licensing center in the park. Six white cabanas with chandeliers and silk flowers were set up for weddings.
On the steps of San Francisco City Hall, a gay men's chorus sang while supporters handed out cupcakes. Inside, Helen Zia, 55, and Lia Shigemura, 50, of Oakland, sang "The Chapel of Love," their voices echoing through the marble halls. They wore orchid leis from Shigemura's home state of Hawaii.
"This is the most meaningful day of my life. I've always wanted to get married," Shigemura said. "I just never thought it'd be possible."