WORCESTER, Mass. — Massachusetts on Monday became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, ending a centuries-old tradition in this country that limited matrimony to one man and one woman.
Although gays and lesbians held wedding ceremonies earlier this year in San Francisco, Oregon, New York and New Mexico, the unions were not legally sanctioned. Vermont four years ago legalized civil unions, granting same-sex couples the same rights as married people within the state, but without using the word "marriage."
In legalizing same-sex marriage, Massachusetts joined Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Canada's three most populous provinces as the only places in the world where gays and lesbians can marry.
A November ruling by the state's highest court made Monday the official launch date for gay marriage. After Cambridge got the jump on every other community in the commonwealth by issuing licenses at 12:01 a.m., hundreds of same-sex couples flocked to city and town clerks from Barnstable on Cape Cod to Boston to Great Barrington in the western part of the state.
In Provincetown, a seaside resort where half of the full-time residents are gay and lesbian, couples seeking marriage licenses began arriving at Town Hall at 4:30 a.m. -- four hours before the big wooden building was scheduled to open. After the couples got their licenses, they stepped outside to applause from a crowd that grew larger and more jubilant as the day wore on.
"I guess the word I would have to use today is 'surreal,' " said Peter Bez, a Provincetown innkeeper who took out a marriage license with his partner of 27 years, artist Chuck Anzalone.
Just after noon on Monday, Bez and Anzalone became the 100th couple to get their license in Provincetown. Last year, 19 marriage licenses were issued there.
"It doesn't seem like it is happening," Bez said. "But I guess it is, right here in my own backyard."
Among the dozens of couples obtaining licenses in Provincetown, said attorney Bennett Klein, many were from out of town -- defying an order from Gov. Mitt Romney that only residents of Massachusetts could marry here. Klein's organization, Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, argued the case that generated the Supreme Judicial Court's landmark decision.
In Boston, a spokesman for the Coalition for Marriage, a group opposed to same-sex marriage, pledged to keep fighting for a constitutional amendment banning such unions -- at both the state and federal level.
Massachusetts state legislators this spring passed a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman. But before it can become law, the measure must be approved again by lawmakers in 2005 and then passed as a ballot initiative in the general election in 2006.
"We feel that just because same-sex marriage has been ruled legal, that does not make same-sex marriage right or healthy for society at large," said Ray McNulty, communications director of the Coalition for Marriage.
But at City Hall plaza in Boston on Monday, nothing could detract from the atmosphere of celebration. Mayor Thomas M. Menino personally greeted three couples who were plaintiffs in the lawsuit -- including Julie and Hillary Goodridge, who lent their name to the case.
The soft sounds of a string quartet drowned out a sprinkling of protesters. Couples carried flowers; some wore full wedding attire as they arrived to take out marriage licenses.
Josh Friedes of the Freedom to Marry Coalition, a gay-rights advocacy group, said many in the packed congregation at Boston's Arlington Street Church burst into tears when the Rev. Kim Crawford Harvie pronounced David Wilson and Robert Compton -- two of the Good- ridge case plaintiffs -- "partners for life."
Massachusetts normally requires a three-day waiting period, but scores of couples obtained court waivers so they could wed immediately. Compton and Wilson exchanged vows at 10 a.m., the first of the seven plaintiff couples to marry Monday.
"Inside each and every one of us who was inside that church at that moment, there was a healing," said Friedes, whose organization was founded 11 years ago with the goal of legalizing same-sex marriage.
"We asked for equality. We won equality," Friedes said. "I think everybody's a little bit in shock today."
But it was here in central Massachusetts that marriage for gays and lesbians seemed to become normal as fast as it became legal. Worcester, the state's second-largest city, bills itself as "the heart of Massachusetts, the soul of New England." The city of old brick factories is home to a large immigrant population -- as well as a half a dozen colleges and universities.
"This is where real people live," said City Clerk David Rushford. "This is not Disney World."