New York: Hundreds of gay and lesbian couples excitedly became the first to tie the knot as a New York state law took effect and was hailed as a milestone toward legalising gay marriage nationwide.
"We are not any more second-class citizens in the state of New York," said Yolanda Potasinski, 55, who stood in line before sunrise with partner Nancy Mertzel, a 48-year-old lawyer, to exchange vows in Manhattan on the first day of the law legalising same-sex marriage.
"There`s still work to do in the rest of the country," she admitted, as the two who have lived together for 18 years were among couples in New York City to say "I do”.
City officials said a record-setting 659 couples were married in ceremonies on Sunday and that others who received their licenses will be wed in the coming weeks.
"Today was a historic day in our city, and we couldn`t be prouder that on the first day that everyone in New York City could have their love affirmed in the eyes of the law, we were able to serve everyone," said Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
First in line at the city clerk`s office were gray-haired seniors Phyllis Siegel and Connie Kopelov, who cried and waved with joy to waiting journalists after their wedding ceremony.
The law allowing same-sex marriage went into effect at the stroke of midnight across New York -- the sixth US state to allow gay couples to legally marry.
Niagara Falls, which shares the most powerful waterfalls in North America with Canada, hosted the first marriage just after midnight as the famous cascades lit up with the rainbow colours of the gay pride movement.
"Today the doors of marriage equality swing open in New York. It`s no surprise a flood of same-sex couples is expected to flow through," the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force said in a statement.
"Until you have walked in the shoes of someone who has been denied this fundamental freedom -- a rite that bonds us a people -- it is hard to comprehend just how profoundly moving this moment is. Today is a day to rejoice and celebrate."
Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group backing same-sex rights, noted that the new law means couples will receive a host of rights and responsibilities afforded to heterosexual marriages, including health care decision-making for an incapacitated spouse, property rights and inheritance rights.
"Today our marriage license, our wedding, means that New York City recognizes us as people and a legal couple," said businessman Daniel Hernandez, 53, marrying his partner Nevin Cohen, a 48-year-old teacher.
"We are very happy to be part of the loving couples here standing outside in the heat and waiting in line to be married."
Marcos Chaljub, 29, was overcome with happiness as he wed Freddy Zambrano, his partner of five years. "Thank you New York," he said. "This is a dream come true."
But opposite the registry office, a small crowd of about a dozen people booed the happy couples. An Orthodox Jewish man held a sign that simply read: "Gay Marriage: Bad Idea”. No major disturbances were reported, however.
The ceremonies marked a unique day in the history of the Big Apple, the largest city in the United States with eight million residents. The city`s last marriage records were 621 on Valentine`s Day (February 14) 2003 and 610 unions on August 08, 2008, because of the popularity of the date 08/08/08.
Bloomberg, who had pushed for the gay marriage law to be adopted, was officiating at the marriage of two male colleagues in Gracie Mansion, the mayor`s official residence.
"Over the years, we have rectified injustices or improved on equality," he told ABC`s "This Week" program.
Bloomberg said he thought gay marriage would take off across the United States "simply because of the economics and the young people" who will gain more influence on politics in years to come.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issued a proclamation after midnight marking Sunday as a "profoundly important day" for gay and lesbian New York Yorkers and a "proud demonstration of our state`s commitment to ensuring complete equality for all of our citizens”.
He hosted a party for gay rights advocates and lawmakers who helped push through the same-sex marriage law.
Gay marriage is not legal under federal law as the so-called Defence of Marriage Act only recognises marriage as the union between a man and a woman.
The White House says President Barack Obama favours legislation that would repeal the law, which also allows states where gay marriage is not permitted to refuse to recognise a legally sanctioned gay marriage from another state.