Seattle: Hundreds of same-sex couples across Washington state started picking up marriage licenses on Thursday as a voter-approved law legalising gay marriage took effect.
King County, the state's biggest county, opened the doors to its auditor's office in Seattle just after midnight to start distributing marriage licenses. But hundreds of people had lined up hours earlier, snaking around the downtown Seattle building on a chilly December night. By Thursday afternoon, 489 licenses had been issued in Seattle.
Last month, Washington, Maine and Maryland became the first states to pass same-sex marriage by popular vote. They joined six other states — New York, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont — and the District of Columbia that had already enacted laws or issued court rulings permitting same-sex marriage.
Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire and Secretary of State Sam Reed certified the election results of Referendum 74 on Wednesday afternoon, and the law took effect at 12:01 am Thursday.
The referendum had asked voters to either approve or reject the state law legalising same-sex marriage that legislators passed earlier this year. That law was signed by Gregoire in February but was put on hold pending the outcome of the election. Nearly 54 percent of voters approved the measure.
Because the state has a three-day waiting period, the earliest that weddings can take place is Sunday.
"We waited a long time. We've been together 35 years, never thinking we'd get a legal marriage. Now I feel so joyous I can't hardly stand it," said 85-year-old Pete-e Petersen, who with her partner, 77-year-old Jane Abbott Lighty, were the first to get a license in Seattle.
After meeting 35 years ago on a blind date in Sacramento, Lighty and Petersen will get married on Sunday. The couple has been out buying shoes and clothes for their wedding.
Same-sex couples who previously were married in another state that allows gay marriage, like Massachusetts, will not have to get remarried in Washington state. Their marriages will be valid here as soon as the law takes effect.
The law doesn't require religious organizations or churches to perform marriages, and it doesn't subject churches to penalties if they don't marry gay or lesbian couples.
King County, home to Seattle, and Thurston County, home to the state capital of Olympia, opened at 12:01 a.m. Thursday to start issuing marriage licenses. While King County stayed open all night, Thurston opened briefly to issue licenses to 15 couples who had entered a lottery, then closed and reopened at 7 a.m.
Asked whether the middle-of-the-night marriage license roll-out was necessary, King County Executive Dow Constantine said, "People who have been waiting all these years to have their rights recognized should not have to wait one minute longer."
In Seattle, the mood was festive. Volunteers distributed roses, coffee and fruit. Couples canoodled to keep warm. Champagne was poured. Different groups of men and women serenaded the waiting line, one to the tune of "Going to the Chapel."
"We knew it was going to happen, but it's still surreal," said Amanda Dollente, who along with her partner, Kelly Middleton, began standing in line at 4 p.m. Wednesday.
At the Thurston County courthouse on Thursday morning, Deb Dulaney, 54, and Diane McGee, 64, arrived just before 9 a.m. The couple has been together for 16 years, and they moved to Washington state in 2005 from California, where they were registered as domestic partners.
McGee said they wanted to get married there but were unable to before voters passed 2008's Proposition 8, the amendment that outlawed gay marriage after it had been approved by court ruling. A federal court has since struck down Prop. 8, but an appeal on that case is still pending before the US Supreme Court.
Dulaney and McGee registered as domestic partners in Seattle in 2005, and then through the state when the state's domestic partnership law passed in 2007. Now they wanted to take that final step of marriage, even though they plan on moving back to California in the coming months to be closer to family. They haven't set a wedding date but said a simple service is planned within the 60 days that their license is valid.
"I feel much more moved by it than I thought I would," Dulaney said. "I thought we were just going to come here, get the paperwork and go home. But now, it's like, 'whoa.'"
"It's for real now," McGee told her.
Couples in Maryland also started picking up marriage licenses Thursday, though their licenses won't take effect until 1 January.
"I really imagined my life as being just with a partner and never having a wife, so to have this day come about and to be a part of it, it means everything to me," said Kim Hinken, who was the first person to get a marriage license at a court in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. The 52-year-old said she has waited nearly 10 years to become legally married to Adrianne Eathorne.
Maine's law takes effect on 29 December. There's no waiting period in Maine, and people can start marrying just after midnight.
In addition to private ceremonies that will start taking place across Washington state this weekend, Seattle City Hall will open for several hours on Sunday, and several local judges are donating their time to marry couples. Aaron Pickus, a spokesman for Mayor Mike McGinn, said that more than 140 couples have registered to get married at City Hall, and weddings will begin at 10 am.