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.
But a party atmosphere reigned in the lobby of the Manhattan clerk's office, with cheers and applause breaking out whenever a couple were handed their white-and-blue wedding certificate. Balloons floated overhead. One couple wore matching kilts; another wore sparkly crowns.
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."
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.
Thousands of opponents of gay marriage also took to the streets. The National Organization for Marriage held rallies in New York City, Albany, Rochester, and Buffalo, saying Gov. Andrew Cuomo and lawmakers redefined marriage without giving voters a chance to weigh in. Protesters chanted, "Let the people vote!" at rallies across the state.
A rally in New York that started with several hundred people crowding the street across from Cuomo's Manhattan office quickly swelled to thousands of people out in loud opposition to the new law. They waved signs saying "Excommunicate Cuomo" and "God cannot be mocked." Cuomo campaigned in support of gay marriage, which he called a basic human right.
Hundreds more protested on the steps of Buffalo's City Hall and at the state Capitol in Albany.
Clerks in New York and about a dozen other cities statewide opened their doors Sunday to cater to same-sex couples.
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 have been together 15 years.
"We've been waiting for this day," Leopold said after the service. "And now we're waiting for the day it becomes legal on a federal level."