NEW YORK — Hundreds of gay couples dressed in formal suits and striped trousers, gowns and T-shirts recited vows in emotion-choked voices and triumphantly hoisted their long-awaited marriage certificates on Sunday as New York became the sixth and largest state to recognize same-sex weddings.
Couples began saying "I do" at midnight from Niagara Falls to Long Island, though New York City became the sometimes raucous center of action by daybreak Sunday as couples waited on a sweltering day for the chance to exchange vows at the city clerk's office.
Thousands of protesters rallied in several cities around the state, a signal that the long fight for recognition may not be over just yet.
State Sen. Ruben Diaz, a minister who was the sole Democrat to vote against gay marriage when the Legislature approved it, told a crowd near the United Nations that he and other opponents would try to get Sunday's marriages annulled, saying judges broke the law by waiving the 24-hour waiting period without a good reason.
"We're going to show them next week that everything they did today was illegal," he said, speaking in Spanish. "Today we start the battle! Today we start the war!"
But a party atmosphere reigned in the lobby of the Manhattan clerk's office, with cheers and applause breaking out whenever a couple was handed their white-and-blue wedding certificate. Balloons floated overhead. One couple wore matching kilts; another wore sparkly crowns. Children scurried up and down the lobby; workers with bullhorns called out the numbers of each couple.
Poignant signs of pent-up emotion were common from couples who had in some cases waited for years to wed. Couples cried and voices quavered. Newlywed Douglas Robinson exclaimed, "You bet your life I do!" when asked if he would take Michael Elsasser as his spouse.
The first couple to marry in Manhattan were Phyllis Siegel, 77, and Connie Kopelov, 85, who have been together for 23 years. Kopelov arrived in a wheelchair and stood with the assistance of a walker. During the service, Siegel wrapped her hand in Kopelov's hand and they both grasped the walker.
Witnesses cheered and wiped away tears after the two women vowed to honor and cherish each other as spouses and then kissed.
"I am breathless. I almost couldn't breathe," Siegel said after the ceremony. "It's mind-boggling. The fact that it's happening to us – that we are finally legal and can do this like everyone else."
Outside afterward, Siegel raised her arms exultantly as Kopelov, in the wheelchair, held out a marriage certificate.
New York's adoption of legal same-sex marriage is viewed as a pivotal moment in the national gay rights movement and was expected to galvanize supporters and opponents alike. The state joined Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont, along with Washington, D.C., when it voted last month to legalize gay marriage.
Protest rallies were carried out in Manhattan, Buffalo, Rochester and Albany on Sunday afternoon. Gay marriage opponents unhappy that Gov. Andrew Cuomo and lawmakers legalized same-sex marriage last month are calling for a statewide referendum on the issue.
Several hundred people crowded into the street across from Cuomo's Manhattan office to protest the new law. They waved signs saying "Excommunicate Cuomo" and chanted "Let the people vote!"
"I'm here for God's sake," said Steve Rosner, 65, of the Lower East Side. "To sanctify same-sex marriage is an abomination. It's beyond belief."
Hundreds more protested on the steps of Buffalo's City Hall and at the state Capitol in Albany. Outside the Capitol where a month before jubilant gay couples celebrated the watershed vote, about 400 people gathered in a park in a protest they said was political, but had a strong religious thread.
Tre' Staton, pastor at the Empire Christian Center in suburban Colonie and an organizer of the protest, said he lobbied lawmakers in the run-up to the New York Senate vote and was frustrated they passed a law he doesn't believe many people support, particularly in the black community.
"We're not against anybody, but we don't want this imposed on us," he said, stressing the National Organization for Marriage's theme for the rally. "We're looking for a referendum, an opportunity to have our fair say."
Clerks in New York City and about a dozen other cities statewide opened their doors Sunday to cater to same-sex couples. In New York City and other locations, judges waived a mandatory 24-hour waiting period that allowed couples to exchange vows moments after receiving their licenses.
In Manhasset on Long Island, Dina Mazzaferro and Robin Leopold of Great Neck got married in the North Hempstead town clerk's office with their 8-year-old daughter, Sasha, and Robin's mother, Barbara, watching. The elder woman wiped away tears during the brief ceremony while Sasha mouthed some of the words along with her parents.
The couple has been together 15 years.
"We've been waiting for this day," Leopold, an attorney who works in the Queens district attorney's office, said after the service. "And now we're waiting for the day it becomes legal on a federal level. It's a wonderful thing that the town has been so embracing of this."
Across the state in Buffalo, the first in line were Daniel Rodgers, 54, and Scott Klaurens, 40, who were married in shorts, T-shirts and sneakers. They had gone expecting only to get a license and planned to wed Tuesday, but were told they could go ahead Sunday because of their marriage six years ago in Toronto.
"This is just a flower opening up for us and everyone else, a flower of equality," Rodgers said.
At Buffalo City Hall, City Clerk Gerald Chwalinski zipped a black robe over his shorts and golf shirt and spent three hours marrying couples in the ornate City Council chambers. His office issued 20 licenses and performed 8 ceremonies in the three hours it was open for the occasion Sunday.
In Syracuse, officials issued licenses to 25 same-sex couples and eight of them were granted waivers. Of the 15 same-sex couples granted licenses in Binghamton, one was from neighboring Pennsylvania and three were from New York City; five of those couples were getting married Sunday.
Initially, New York City officials had projected that about 2,500 couples might show up at the city clerk's offices hoping to get married on Sunday, but by the time a 48-hour lottery had drawn to a close on Thursday, 823 couples had signed up – 59 more than the city had planned to accommodate. The city said it would perform ceremonies for all of them.
At the end of the day Sunday, the mayor's office said 484 couples had gotten married at city offices while another 175 picked up their licenses in order to marry elsewhere. Most were from the city, but some came from as far as Hawaii and Alabama, officials said.
The festive atmosphere included couples who posed for pictures in front of a photo backdrop of City Hall and bought T-shirts saying "I got married in New York City" from the clerk's office gift shop. In Brooklyn, an elegant reception was held in Borough Hall with champagne and a lineup of cakes – one with a two-men cake topper, another with two women and a third with a heterosexual couple.
There were some glitches, though. In Brooklyn, Eufemio Torres and John Torres were told incorrectly by a city employee that they could not wed Sunday because Eufemio had only a Mexican passport.
"Our hearts sank. But I'm a fighter, and we were not going home," said John Torres, a legal secretary.
Soon after speaking with the Brooklyn borough president's chief of staff, the pair stood before a judge in the hall's elaborately wood-carved main chamber. Eufemio Torres cradled a bouquet of white lilies and orchids, and the men took their wedding vows.
At Manhattan's Gracie Mansion, Mayor Michael Bloomberg presided over the wedding of two high-level city officials. Department of Consumer Affairs Commissioner Jonathan Mintz and policy adviser John Feinblatt had been together for 14 years. They were joined by their daughters, ages six and eight, who wore white dresses and held bouquets.
"We're full of love the way other families are," Mintz said.
The day began with some couples exchanging vows right after midnight. In Niagara Falls, gay rights activists Kitty Lambert and Cheryle Rudd were legally married the very first moment they could be during a midnight ceremony.
With the rainbow-lit falls as a backdrop, Lambert, 54, and Rudd, 53, were among the first gay couples to tie the knot with the blessing of the state. Lambert and Rudd, who have 12 grandchildren between them, have been together for more than a decade and had long been fighting for the right to marry.
The couple, both from Buffalo, smiled broadly as they exchanged traditional marriage vows, promising to love and cherish each other in sickness and in health. A crowd of several hundred people cheered as they were pronounced married and shared their first kiss.
"What an incredible night this was," said Lambert, who wore an electric blue satin gown with a sequined train for the ceremony and carried a bouquet of blue hydrangeas. "Everything was absolutely perfect."
In Albany, Mayor Jerry Jennings performed marriages at 12:01 a.m. Sunday in the Common Council's chambers.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Frank Eltman in Manhasset, Carolyn Thompson in Buffalo and Verena Dobnik and Samantha Gross in New York City.