Hundreds of gay and lesbian couples across New York State began marrying on Sunday — 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.
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, Ms. Lambert, 54, and Ms. Rudd, 53, held hands and kissed in front of more than 100 friends and family members.
In New York City, 823 couples signed up in advance to get marriage licenses on Sunday, and many of them were expected to marry in city clerk’s offices across the five boroughs. Officials from more than a dozen cities and towns from Buffalo to Brookhaven said they would open their offices to issue marriage licenses on Sunday, and more than 100 judges across the state have volunteered to officiate at the couples’ weddings on the spot.
“This is long overdue,” said Mayor Matthew T. Ryan of Binghamton, who planned to preside at the wedding of at least two local couples, and who invited same-sex couples from Pennsylvania to come to his city to be married. “It really is a great day for all of us who believe in inclusiveness and equal rights for everybody.”
The weddings — businesslike ceremonies in fluorescent-lighted city offices for some, lavish catered affairs for others — represent 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 Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed it into law that night. But the law did not take effect for 30 days, which is why Sunday is the first day that clerk’s offices were permitted to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.
“As the hours tick by, we’re getting more and more excited,” Brian Banks, a 33-year-old middle-school special-education teacher from Albany, said on Friday after going to City Hall there to fill out paperwork. Mr. Banks planned to marry his partner of seven years, Jon Zehnder, 37, a high school math teacher, at the midnight ceremony in Albany on Sunday. “Even though we’ve always viewed ourselves as married, to have there be no asterisk next to it, it’ll just feel really good,” he said.
Not everyone will be celebrating. Town clerks in at least two rural communities have resigned in recent days, saying their religious convictions precluded them from marrying gay couples, and some cities will see public demonstrations on Sunday. The National Organization for Marriage is planning protests on Sunday afternoon at the State Capitol, outside Mr. Cuomo’s office in Midtown Manhattan and in the two largest cities upstate, Buffalo and Rochester.
But a sampling of pastors in the New York City area found that most did not intend to discuss same-sex marriage in their sermons on Sunday. At St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, for example, the homilist planned to speak on other subjects. “There may not be much more to say at this point,” Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said.
New York is the sixth, and largest, state to legalize same-sex marriage. Several other states are considering following suit, and on Sunday, some gay rights advocates plan to gather in Hoboken to call on New Jersey lawmakers to follow New York’s lead and allow gay couples to wed. 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.
“It’s a huge step forward, and yet it doesn’t erase the fact that there’s so many roadblocks facing advocates of marriage equality,” said George Chauncey, a historian at Yale and the author of “Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940.”
“Most of the time, an awful lot of the nation doesn’t want to be like New York at all,” Mr. Chauncey said. “I suspect that many people will take this as one more sign of what happens in the Northeast, and in New York in particular, that they don’t want to have happen in their own communities.”
Larry Kramer, the playwright and longtime gay rights advocate, said that as long as the federal government continued not to recognize same-sex marriages, the celebration in New York on Sunday would be misguided.
“These marriages, in whichever state, are what I call feel-good marriages,” Mr. Kramer said. “Compared to the benefits heterosexual marriages convey, gay marriages are an embarrassment — that we should accept so little, and with so much hoopla of excitement and self-congratulation.”
But many people, both 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.”
Whatever the historical implications — and however the push to legalize same-sex marriage fares in the other states where advocates plan to shift their focus — there will be no shortage of celebration, and protest, on Sunday and in the days to follow.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said he would officiate at the wedding of two senior City Hall officials at a ceremony at Gracie Mansion, while Mr. Cuomo was to host a party for gay rights advocates and lawmakers at a hotel near the meatpacking district.
In Brooklyn, the borough president, Marty Markowitz, planned to open Borough Hall for a marathon series of weddings, complete with free cake and Champagne.
Outside the city clerk’s office in Lower Manhattan, rabbis from a synagogue in the West Village were scheduled to solemnize weddings under a rainbow-colored huppah, or Jewish wedding canopy. And two gay puppets, Rod and Ricky, from the Tony Award-winning musical “Avenue Q,” planned to show up outside the clerk’s office to stage a mock wedding as well.
There are also a variety of same-sex wedding celebrations, some with commercial or promotional overtones, on the agenda over the next days and months.
On Monday night, three gay couples will wed onstage at the St. James Theater after the evening’s performance of the Broadway musical “Hair.” On Saturday, two dozen couples will marry in two pop-up chapels that are to be installed in Central Park. And the Fire Island Pines resort is promoting three same-sex wedding packages, one featuring a private ferry ride “complete with your own crew of drag queens.”