At Collingswood's Borough Hall yesterday, in streamed a handful of citizens of historical significance - gay and lesbian couples who applied for a civil-union license on the first day New Jersey's new law allowed them.

Mark Henderson, 42, and Charles Dowdy, 41, walked in with their two sons, Xavier, 6, and Sekai, 3. After a required waiting period of 72 hours, the men can be officially united with all the state's legal benefits of marriage, but not the title.

As they filed the civil-union paperwork with a clerk, the boys charged up behind their fathers, then giggled their way back to the other side of the office. Henderson said he and Dowdy want to be joined in civil union for "these two little boys. It allows us to have rights we didn't otherwise have before."

In Collingswood, Lambertville, and a few other towns across New Jersey whose municipal buildings were open yesterday, at least 20 gay couples applied for civil-union licenses, starting the waiting period and beginning several days of hoopla over New Jersey's civil-union law. One dozen couples applied in Collingswood.

The state's first civil-union ceremony came shortly after midnight, when gay rights activist Steven Goldstein and his partner, Daniel Gross, exchanged vows in Teaneck, kissing and laughing before a gaggle of reporters and photographers. The men were exempt from New Jersey's waiting period because they had been married in Canada and had entered a civil union in Vermont.

New Jersey yesterday joined California, Connecticut and Vermont in recognizing civil unions. Only Massachusetts allows gay couples to marry.

Collingswood's Borough Hall is open on many holidays so working residents can use the day off to take care of municipal business, said Mayor Jim Maley. It was coincidence that the town's government was operating yesterday on the first day of the new law, he said.

Maley, who said Collingswood embraces all its residents, said he was pleased with yesterday's municipal traffic. He blocked time out of his schedule on Thursday and Friday to perform civil-union ceremonies for the first wave of applicants.

Dowdy and Henderson, together for nine years, hope to be part of that wave. Later, they hope to adopt the boys and give them hyphenated last names. Now, each boy is adopted by one parent.

"This is done to say I'm entitled to the same respect, the same rights, as everyone else," said Dowdy. "We love our families like everyone else."

For former Philadelphians Ron Andrews, 61, and his partner, Alan Muchler, 59, getting a civil-union application continues a gay rights struggle that spans their 35-year relationship.

"Personally, I don't agree with marriage," said Andrews, a hair stylist who works in King of Prussia. "I don't think the heterosexual community has done such a good job, since more than 50 percent don't last. It's just that we deserve and demand every legal right that everyone else has under the law."

Civil unions grant gay and lesbian couples many of the same legal rights in New Jersey that heterosexual married couples have in adoptions, child custody cases, inheritances and medical decisions. The law does not grant federal rights, such as getting a deceased partner's Social Security benefits.

New Jersey's civil-union law, signed by Gov. Corzine Dec. 21, follows last year's state Supreme Court ruling that gay couples were eligible for the same legal protections as married couples. The court ordered the Legislature to act. Lawmakers said gay marriage lacked public support and passed the civil-union law.

Goldstein said Garden State Equality and other gay-rights groups would continue to lobby for a law that allows gay marriage.

Contact staff writer Cynthia Burton at 856-779-3858 or cburton@phillynews.com.