SEATTLE – Two by two, dozens of same-sex couples obtained their marriage licenses in Washington state early Thursday, just hours after Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a voter-approved law legalizing gay marriage.
King County, the state's biggest county, opened the doors to its auditor's office in Seattle just after midnight PST to start distributing marriage licenses. But hundreds of people had lined up hours earlier, snaking around the downtown Seattle building on a chilly December night. By noon, nearly 400 licenses had been issued in Seattle.
"We knew it was going to happen, but it's still surreal," said Amanda Dollente, who along with her partner, Kelly Middleton, began standing in line at 4 p.m. Wednesday.
Washington state now joins several other states that allow gay and lesbian couples to wed. Gregoire and Secretary of State Sam Reed certified the election on Wednesday afternoon, as they were joined by couples who plan to wed and community activists who worked on the campaign supporting gay marriage.
Because the state has a three-day waiting period, the earliest that weddings can take place is Sunday. Same-sex couples who previously were married in another state that allows gay marriage, like Massachusetts, will not have to get remarried in Washington state. Their marriages will be valid here as soon as the law takes effect.
"This is a very important and historic day in the great state of Washington," Gregoire said before signing the measure that officially certified the election results. "For many years now we've said one more step, one more step. And this is our last step for marriage equality in the state of Washington."
Last month, Washington, Maine and Maryland became the first states to pass same-sex marriage by popular vote. They joined six other states – New York, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont – and the District of Columbia that had already enacted laws or issued court rulings permitting same-sex marriage.
Referendum 74 in Washington state had asked voters to either approve or reject the state law legalizing same-sex marriage that legislators passed earlier this year. That law was signed by Gregoire in February but was put on hold pending the outcome of the election. Nearly 54 percent of voters approved the measure.
The law doesn't require religious organizations or churches to perform marriages, and it doesn't subject churches to penalties if they don't marry gay or lesbian couples.
King County, the state's largest and home to Seattle, and Thurston County, home to the state capital of Olympia, opened at 12:01 a.m. Thursday to start issuing marriage licenses. While King County stayed open all night, Thurston opened briefly to issue licenses to 15 couples who had entered a lottery, then closed and reopened at 7 a.m.
Pierce County opened its doors at 6:30 a.m., Clark and Island counties started issuing licenses at 8 a.m. and other counties were holding regular business hours.
Asked whether the middle-of-the-night marriage license roll-out was necessary, King County Executive Dow Constantine said, "People who have been waiting all these years to have their rights recognized should not have to wait one minute longer."
In Seattle, the mood was festive. Volunteers distributed roses, coffee and fruit. Couples canoodled to keep warm. Champagne was poured. Different groups of men and women serenaded the waiting line, one to the tune of "Going to the Chapel."
"We waited a long time. We've been together 35 years, never thinking we'd get a legal marriage. Now I feel so joyous I can't hardly stand it," said 85-year-old Pete-e Petersen, who with her partner, 77-year-old Jane Abbott Lighty, were the first to get a license.
After meeting 35 years ago on a blind date in Sacramento, Lighty and Petersen will get married on Sunday. The couple has been out buying shoes and clothes for their wedding.
At the Thurston County courthouse on Thursday morning, Deb Dulaney, 54, and Diane McGee, 64, both of Olympia, arrived just before 9 a.m. The couple has been together for 16 years, and they moved to Washington state in 2005 from California, where they were registered as domestic partners.
McGee said they wanted to get married there but were unable to before voters passed 2008's Proposition 8, the amendment that outlawed gay marriage after it had been approved by court ruling. A federal court has since struck down Prop. 8, but an appeal on that case is still pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Dulaney and McGee registered as domestic partners in Seattle in 2005, and then through the state when the state's domestic partnership law passed in 2007. Now they wanted to take that final step of marriage, even though they plan on moving back to California in the coming months to be closer to family. They haven't set a wedding date but said a simple service is planned within the 60 days that their license is valid.
"I feel much more moved by it than I thought I would," Dulaney said. "I thought we were just going to come here, get the paperwork and go home. But now, it's like, 'whoa.'"
"It's for real now," McGee told her.
Maryland's law officially takes effect Jan. 1, however couples can start picking up marriage licenses on Thursday, as long as the license has an effective date of Jan. 1. Whether clerks of court issue a postdated license is up to them, however. They are not required to do so. Maine's law takes effect on Dec. 29. There's no waiting period in Maine, and people can start marrying just after midnight.
In addition to private ceremonies that will start taking place across Washington state this weekend, Seattle City Hall will open for several hours on Sunday, and several local judges are donating their time to marry couples. Aaron Pickus, a spokesman for Mayor Mike McGinn, said that more than 140 couples have registered to get married at City Hall, and weddings will begin at 10 a.m. In Olympia, a group of local judges has offered to perform wedding ceremonies just after midnight on Sunday at the Thurston County courthouse.
Washington state has had a domestic partnership law in place since 2007. The initial law granted couples about two dozen rights, including hospital visitation and inheritance rights when there is no will. It was expanded a year later, and then again in 2009, when lawmakers completed the package with the so-called "everything but marriage" law that was ultimately upheld by voters later that year.
This year, lawmakers passed the law allowing gay marriage, and Gregoire signed it in February. Opponents gathered enough signatures for a referendum, putting the law on hold before it could take effect.
There are nearly 10,000 domestic partnership registrations with the secretary of state's office. Most same-sex domestic partnerships that aren't ended prior to June 30, 2014, automatically become marriages, unless one of the partners is 62 or older.
That provision was included in the state's first domestic partnership law of 2007 to help heterosexual seniors who don't remarry out of fear they could lose certain pension or Social Security benefits.
Among those getting marriage licenses Thursday was gay rights activist Dan Savage, who will marry his partner Sunday with other couples at Seattle City Hall.
"It's been a long fight but it ain't over," he said. "We still have to fight [the Defense of Marriage Act] and there's 41 other states where same-sex couples aren't allowed to marry."