By Malia Mattoch McManus
HONOLULU (Reuters) - Dozens of same-sex couples, led by a gay minister and his longtime partner, tied the knot in Hawaii early on Monday as a new law went into effect at midnight, making the Aloha state the 15th to legalize gay marriage.
With Democratic Governor Neil Abercrombie in attendance, Jonipher Kwong and Chris Nelson became the first gay couple to marry in Hawaii during a ceremony at the First Unitarian Church of Honolulu, just minutes after same-sex weddings became legal.
"I've done many weddings for other couples but didn't realize how profound it would be for me," said Kwong, a minister at First Unitarian and vocal advocate of the new law who has waited 15 years to marry his partner.
"At the end of the evening I was speechless to be part of that historic moment, not just for us but those who will come after," he told Reuters. "I also felt a little sad that some of the people who came before were not able to complete marriage and see it in their lifetime."
Hawaii's governor signed legislation last month extending marriage rights to same-sex couples, capping 20 years of legal and political rancor in a state regarded as a pioneer in advancing the cause of gay matrimony.
Kwong and Nelson joined a rush of other same-sex couples who were quick to tie the knot as the law went into effect. Their ranks include between 30 and 40 same-sex couples who were married at the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel in Honolulu starting just after midnight local time, according to a hotel employee.
"It felt like we were actually first-class citizens," Kwong said of his wedding. "We're both still riding cloud nine at this point."
PATH TO GAY MARRIAGE
The path to gay marriage in Hawaii, long a popular wedding and honeymoon destination, was long and bumpy. The state Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that barring same-sex marriage was discriminatory, in a landmark opinion that spurred the gay rights movement nationwide but sparked a backlash that until now kept matrimony in Hawaii restricted to heterosexuals.
Hawaii's new law, passed during a special session of the Democrat-controlled legislature, rolled back a 1994 statute that defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
The latest reversal by Hawaii lawmakers comes at a time of increasing momentum for gay marriage in the courts, at the ballot box and in statehouses across the United States.
The trend has gained steam since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that married same-sex couples were eligible for federal benefits, striking down a key part of the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act.
Massachusetts led the way in legalizing gay marriage by becoming the first state to do so in 2003. A year ago, only six states and the District of Columbia recognized same-sex marriage, but the number has since more than doubled, due in most cases to litigation over the issue.
In October, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie dropped his legal opposition to gay marriage, making his state the 14th to legalize same-sex weddings.
Maine, Maryland and Washington became the first to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples by popular vote by passing ballot initiatives last November. A new Illinois law allowing same-sex marriages goes into effect in six months.
(Additional reporting by Karen Brooks; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Scott Malone, Cyntia Johnston, Maureen Bavdek and Ken Wills)