By Laura L. Myers and Jonathan Kaminsky
SEATTLE (Reuters) - Hundreds of well-wishers braved cold and rain to celebrate 133 weddings at Seattle City Hall on Sunday, marking the first day that same-sex couples could marry in Washington state.
Washington, Maine and Maryland last month became the first U.S. states to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples by a popular vote, in a leap forward for gay rights.
"It means that I can use the word husband without question or explaining," said Corianton Hale, a 34-year-old graphic designer, who was one of the first to tie the knot at City Hall. He married freelance copywriter Keith Bacon, 44.
"We originally registered to come down here to get married at City Hall because we thought we'd just get in and get out," said Bacon. "It ended up being this incredible experience."
About 300 people waited outside City Hall in frigid drizzle to cheer couples as they descended the steps to street level, some throwing rice, blowing bubbles and handing flowers to the newlyweds.
"I've always said Seattle is a wonderful place to be gay, because it's got so many wonderful straight people in it, and you can see that here today on display," said Dan Savage, local author, gay rights activist and syndicated sex advice columnist who married Terry Miller.
"This is a party for same-sex couples in Seattle that is being thrown by the entire city," he told Reuters.
The ceremonies - which lasted all day - were watched by Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, a longtime same-sex marriage supporter.
"What a wonderful thing to be able to support the commitment of these couples to each other and to herald the beginning of a new civil right," McGinn told Reuters inside City Hall.
McGinn's administration helped set up an efficient and elegant operation to handle the multiple nuptials. Couples and their guests lined up outside City Hall, then were ushered inside to a relaxed reception room with white table-cloths, small cupcakes in the colors of the rainbow and a pianist.
After a short ceremony at one of five wedding spots, couples were greeted with cheers as they exited City Hall accompanied by accordion music.
"It's really weird to have a whole bunch of strangers cheering you coming out of City Hall for something that so many people historically have been against. That's amazing," said Carrie Carson, a 40-year-old management consultant who married Lori Robb, 42, who works for technology giant Microsoft Corp.
In Capitol Hill, a gay-friendly neighborhood one mile northeast of downtown Seattle, a retired art gallery owner and an artist who met 35 years ago in a Chicago bar during a heavy snowstorm tied the knot and celebrated the first day of Hanukkah in a traditional Jewish civil ceremony.
Former gallery owner Stuart Wilber, 74, and long-time partner John Breitweiser, 64, wore tuxedos, white shirts and red bow ties.
The wedding was "a step toward federal equality," said Wilber, sporting a silver earring and snakeskin-patterned tennis shoes. "The younger generation doesn't understand what a big deal this is."
The couple, who met in Chicago's Broadway Limited bar, were also celebrating the first day of their 36th year together.
"We've worked together for this for a long time," Breitweiser said. "We expect this from our country. We should be treated equally. In many respects, our fight still goes on."
Hours earlier as midnight chimed, the first same-sex couples were married at a state court ceremony, starting with public elementary school teachers Sarah and Emily Cofer.
"We're so proud to live in this state that recognizes love and commitment," said Sarah Cofer, 31, after she and Emily Cofer, 32, uttered the words "I will" before judge Mary Yu at Seattle's King County Courthouse.
Washington's law went into effect on Thursday, when hundreds of eager couples lined up to apply for marriage licenses. The first legal same-sex weddings began on Sunday after a three-day waiting period required of all marriages expired.
King County - which includes Seattle and its suburbs - said it issued 623 marriage licenses in the three days after Thursday. Weddings took place across the state on Sunday.
The Cofers' union was the state's first same-sex wedding. Cameras clicked, observers clapped and their 9-month-old daughter Carter - born to one of the pair and adopted by the other - cried.
They were followed by 11 other couples who took their vows at 30-minute intervals through the night in Yu's 9th-floor courtroom decorated with poinsettia. Boxes of tissues were on hand for tearful guests.
Thirty-one U.S. states have passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage, while Washington, D.C. and nine states have legalized it, including the three that did so on Election Day last month.
A Pew Research Center survey from October found 49 percent of Americans favored allowing gay marriage and 40 percent opposed. In May, President Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to say same-sex couples should be able to wed.
As gays and lesbians prepared for their nuptials in Washington state, the U.S. Supreme Court stepped into the fray over gay marriage on Friday by agreeing to review two challenges to federal and state laws that define marriage as between a man and a woman.
One onlooker in Seattle hoped that review would lead to the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, passed by the U.S. Congress in 1996, which recognizes only marriages between a man and a woman and disqualifies same-sex couples from a host of federal benefits.
"We're so happy our friends are getting married, but we have decided to wait until it is legal in every state," said Anthony Fox, a 43-year-old healthcare worker, who was cheering married couples outside City Hall with partner Robert Darden, 41.
"We've decided to wait until DOMA's overturned," Fox said. "I actually think it might happen this spring."
For same-sex couples swapping vows in Washington state, the path to legalization has been rocky. The state's Democratic-controlled legislature passed a bill to legalize gay marriage in February, and Democratic Governor Christine Gregoire signed it into law.
But opponents gathered enough signatures to temporarily block the measure from taking effect and force the issue onto the state ballot. Voters, by 54 percent to 46 percent, ultimately approved gay marriage at the polls in November.
(Writing by Bill Rigby; Editing by Tim Gaynor, Tom Pfeiffer and Mohammad Zargham)