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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - For many California gays and lesbians, getting married is nothing new. They've done it more than once -- to the same person.
But as the state officially begins marrying same-sex couples next week, old hands say each time is different.
"How many times am I going to have to marry this woman?" half-joked Marilyn Sanders, a San Francisco Bay area woman who first exchanged vows with Christine Elliott in 2001.
They had a lavish commitment ceremony, with 100 guests, a band, catering and a gown for each bride. But they didn't have a marriage license because same-sex nuptials were not legal.
Three years later they got the chance for legal marriage in San Francisco as the city bucked state law in a short-lived series of same-sex marriage ceremonies, later invalidated by the courts. They wore semi-formal attire to what this time seemed a block party, a political statement made by thousands.
Next week same-sex marriages will be allowed statewide for the first time, thanks to a landmark state Supreme Court decision last month. The two women are going in jeans -- and hoping for an end to their long quest for legitimacy.
Saying "I do" is about a lot more than love by the third time. Couples tying the knot over and over often find ceremonies changing from vows of commitment to political acts. And many find new meaning in the old word of marriage.
When real estate professional David Gunderman wed Andrew Raskopf for the second time in 2004 at San Francisco City Hall, he had an epiphany.
"You were wrapped in a kind of energy and love that was just palpable," he said. He began to think that accepting anything less than full marriage rights was kin to homophobia.
"I am going to fill up my wall with marriage certificates until one sticks," he said.
A similar philosophy led Robin Tyler and Diane Olson in 2004 to challenge state law defining marriage as between a man and a woman. They aim to get married next week at Beverly Hills City Hall, where they made an annual ritual to get a marriage license -- and were denied.
"It's just that understood word that defines our relationship," Olson said of marriage. "People in other countries understand that -- you do here."
But the threat of being shoved back into the cold hangs above those preparing to wed, since Californians will vote in November whether to amend the state constitution to forbid same-sex marriage -- as 45 states do in some form.
Northern Californians Nick Szeto and Gordon Runnels plan to wed on the 17th, having waited for legalized marriage, and they want to follow up with a celebratory ceremony next year -- unless the November measure passes. "If it was invalidated, I can't see any reason to have a wedding," Szeto said.
But many see the civic act as a catalyst for wider change.
"There is something about community support that really helps relationships and helps a relationship be a contribution to the community -- and I'm not talking just about the gay community," said Mike Strange, an insurance professional planning to wed pastry chef David Ingram for the second time.
Like many, however, they see their first ceremony as the most important. Theirs was in a house in the country hours outside of San Francisco, with friends and family.
Lindasusan Ulrich and Emily Drennen held a 2003 wedding that is the date they remember. Both were dressed in white -- and wore the same dresses in 2004 and plan the same this year.
They talk about being "married married" in 2004, as opposed to just "married" in their own ceremony. And they see the state-recognized pledge as adding something to their union. A theme will be 'third time's the charm'.
"I want to be the person who makes the promises, even if some law later on tells me that they didn't have any legal validity," Ulrich said.
Of course, not everyone is ready for marriage. At the Pride parade in the Los Angeles-area gay-friendly city West Hollywood this month, muscular young men danced on a fire truck and floats in micro bathing suits.
Gyrating shirtless in front of a dance/cruise bar float, Dexter LaRoderick, 30, described himself as "Hot!"
Marriage is not in his near future, he said. But thanks to the California Supreme Court, he can now imagine it.
"It makes me want to find somebody," he said.