NEW HAVEN, Connecticut Gay and lesbian couples exchanged vows in Connecticut on Wednesday to cheers from smiling friends and proud relatives as the state became the nation's second to allow same-sex marriage.
"It shows me that public opinion is really changing," said Robin Levine-Ritterman, the first in line at City Hall in New Haven to get a marriage license with her partner of 17 years, Barbara, who already shares the same last name as a result of their prior civil union, as she clutched red roses.
The official start of gay weddings, a month after the state's top court struck down a gay-marriage ban, underscores a steady expansion of gay rights in the U.S. Northeast in sharp contrast to California's November 4 vote to ban such marriages, which sparked weekend protests by thousands.
"It's unbelievable," said a teary Joanne Mock, hugging her partner Beth Kerrigan. They were the lead plaintiffs who sued Connecticut in 2004 for the right to marry.
"It just seemed ridiculously simple to walk in and just sign the paper and have everything be OK," Mock said after receiving a marriage license in the town of West Hartford. "It feels fabulous."
Anne Stanback, president of gay rights group Love Makes a Family, said she expects hundreds of gay couples to receive marriage licenses in coming weeks and thousands more in 2009.
Connecticut's northern neighbor, Massachusetts, led the way by legalizing such marriages in 2003. Five of New England's six states now offer same-sex couples some form of legal recognition. Gay-rights advocates are hopeful New York, New Jersey and Maryland will legalize gay marriage.
"The northeastern part of the country is leading the way," Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights organization, said in a telephone interview.
He said he hopes Vermont and New Hampshire will follow Connecticut's lead. Those two states legalized same-sex civil unions after votes by state lawmakers, just as Connecticut did before its top court allowed gay marriage.
"Vermont and New Hampshire have civil unions debated and passed in a way that I like to think left a door open to a move toward marriage," Solmonese said, adding that many gay and lesbians nationwide see an ally in President-elect Barack Obama and hope a Democratic White House will advance their cause.
But the defeat in California that made same-sex marriage not only illegal but unconstitutional illustrates the difficulty they face.
Constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage also passed last week in Florida, which backed Obama in the presidential race but voted 63 percent to 37 percent to limit marriage to heterosexual couples. Arizona passed a similar ban while Arkansas stopped gay couples from adopting children.
The Family Institute of Connecticut, a conservative Christian group, condemns the Connecticut Supreme Court as undemocratic but acknowledges that banning gay marriage is difficult. Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell, a Republican, has said she disagrees with the ruling but will uphold it.
"We both grew up in this state never thinking this was going to be possible for us," said Ross Zachs after exchanging vows with Michael Miller on the West Hartford Town Hall steps.
Such marriages have become a way of life in Massachusetts, where more than 10,000 gay men and lesbians have wed.
"We travel often and haven't received negative feedback from anybody," said Marilyn Watson-Etsell, 66, a retired teacher in Orleans, Massachusetts, who married her partner of eight years, Karen, in 2004.
"When we travel people ask us if we are married and we say yes and that it's a same-sex marriage. Usually they say, 'Oh you're the first ones we've met.' If there are folks who are not pleased they have kept it to themselves."
Both Massachusetts and Connecticut allow out-of-state same-sex couples to marry, a legal nuance businesses hope will translate into a multimillion-dollar benefit in tourism and weddings following California's ban.
(Additional reporting by Lucy Nalpathanchil; Editing by Bill Trott and Cynthia Osterman)