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New law celebrated as gay couples marry in N.Y.

Opponents demonstrate statewide

Thousands of opponents of gay marriage, including those at a rally at City Hall in Buffalo, took to the streets of several New York communities yesterday. Thousands of opponents of gay marriage, including those at a rally at City Hall in Buffalo, took to the streets of several New York communities yesterday. (David Duprey/ Associated Press)
By Thomas Kaplan and Michael Barbaro
New York Times / July 25, 2011

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NEW YORK - From New York City to Niagara Falls, hundreds of gay and lesbian couples across New York began marrying yesterday - the first taking their vows just after midnight - in the culmination of a long battle in the Legislature and a new milestone for gay-rights advocates seeking to legalize same-sex marriage across the nation.

Outside the city clerk’s office in Lower Manhattan, an orderly crowd had gathered in sweltering temperatures alongside metal police barriers hours before the doors opened around 8:45 a.m., prompting a cheer. At least one veil was in evidence.

Phyllis Siegel, 77, and Connie Kopelov, 85, who have been together in Manhattan for 23 years, were the first couple in, receiving a waiver from the rule requiring 24 hours between a license and a ceremony. They were ushered right into the chapel. Kopelov used a gray walker anchored by two tennis balls as they were married by the city clerk, Michael McSweeney.

As McSweeney declared to the couple, “I now pronounce you married,’’ Siegel tenderly held Kopelov’s head and kissed her on the left cheek. “I am breathless,’’ said Siegel.

The first male couple, Marcos A. Chaljub, 29, and Freddy L. Zambrano, 30, both of Queens, wore matching white shirts, green ties, and black and white boat shoes - even their beards matched. After the newly married couple kissed for a sustained 12 seconds, a friend tossed rice grains out of a Ziploc bag and a small audience in the chapel erupted into loud applause.

New York is the sixth, and largest, state to legalize same-sex marriage. It joins Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont, along with Washington, D.C.

Several other states are considering following suit, but most states have either laws or constitutional amendments barring same-sex marriage, and federal law bars the United States government from recognizing same-sex marriages.

In New York City, 823 couples had signed up in advance to get marriage licenses yesterday. Marriage offices in each borough were open, with some drawing more than others. In some places, small groups of protesters with signs were on hand as well, denouncing the new law. But there were no reports of major disturbances.

By late morning, hundreds of people were still waiting in line outside the office in Manhattan. Those who emerged after being married were greeted with cheers from passersby, a cadre of journalists seeking interviews, and even the congratulations of police officers assigned to keep order.

The City Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, who is openly gay, witnessed the first marriages in Manhattan. “To hear a judge say, ‘By the laws of our state’? It sent a chill up my spine,’’ Quinn said.

Outside the five boroughs, more than a dozen other cities and towns from Buffalo to Brookhaven opened their offices to issue licenses, and more than 100 judges across the state have volunteered to officiate.

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat who has championed same-sex marriage in the state since taking office in January, held a party in New York City and promised to help push for same-sex couples to be allowed to marry in other states. “Passing this law not only completes the promise that we made to the people of the state during the campaign; it’s going to make a real difference in people’s lives,’’ Cuomo told reporters at the Dream Downtown Hotel near the meatpacking district, where he hosted a reception for lawmakers and gay-rights advocates.

Cuomo issued an official proclamation shortly after midnight that commemorated yesterday as a “profoundly important day’’ for gay men and lesbians across the state and a “proud demonstration of our state’s commitment to ensuring complete equality for all of our citizens.’’

Speaking to reporters, Cuomo said he thought the lawmakers who had provided the pivotal votes to enact same-sex marriage, and whom opponents of the marriage bill have promised to drive out of office, would fare well in next year’s elections.

A few snags were reported: In Manhattan, a printer jammed, delaying some marriages, and in Buffalo, a key local official was absent, causing a backlog.

The day of ceremonies began just after midnight. Against a cascade of rainbow-colored falls, and with cicadas humming in the background, Kitty Lambert and Cheryle Rudd married at the first possible moment in Niagara Falls. After a bell tolled 12 times to ring in the new day, Lambert, 54, and Rudd, 53, held hands and kissed in front of more than 100 friends and family members.

In Albany, Dale Getto and Barbara Laven believed themselves to be first. “Oh yeah, no doubt about it,’’ said Mayor Gerald D. Jennings. “I summed it up right at twelve-oh-one-second.’’

The day of weddings represented the end of a political campaign that lasted for years. On June 24, the State Senate voted 33 to 29 to approve same-sex marriage, and Cuomo signed it into law that night. But the law did not take effect for 30 days, which is why yesterday was the first day that clerk’s offices were permitted to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.

Not everyone was celebrating the new law. Thousands of opponents of gay marriage took to the streets of several New York communities in sometimes tense protests yesterday.

The National Organization for Marriage held protests at the State Capitol, outside Cuomo’s office in Midtown Manhattan, and in the two largest cities upstate, Buffalo and Rochester. Protesters chanted “Let the People Vote!’’ at rallies across the state.

At the Manhattan rally, demonstrators waved signs saying “Excommunicate Cuomo’’ and “God cannot be mocked.’’

Many people opposed to and in support of same-sex marriage saw legalization in New York as a significant development, in part because of the size and visibility of the state, and in part because of its symbolism: The modern gay-rights movement traces its symbolic emergence to the Stonewall uprising in New York City in 1969.

“New York really reflects and signifies that the center of gravity on this question has shifted,’’ said Evan Wolfson, the founder and president of Freedom to Marry, which advocates for same-sex marriage. “It gives us tremendous momentum for continuing the journey the country has been on toward fairness.’’

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