NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. Gay-rights activists Kitty Lambert and Cheryle Rudd were legally married the very first moment they could be during a midnight ceremony at Niagara Falls that ushered in same-sex marriage in the state and marked a pivotal moment in the national drive for recognition.
With a rainbow-lit Niagara Falls as a backdrop early Sunday, Lambert, 54, and Rudd, 53, were among the first gay couples to tie the knot with the blessing of the state, which last month became the sixth and largest to sanction gay marriage.
Couples in Albany, Hudson and Long Island also exchanged vows just after midnight Saturday, kicking off what was expected to be a Sunday packed with weddings.
Lambert and Rudd, grandmothers with 12 grandchildren between them, have been together for more than a decade and had long been fighting for the right to marry.
The couple, both of Buffalo, smiled broadly as they exchanged traditional marriage vows, promising to love and cherish each other in sickness and in health. A crowd of several hundred people cheered as they were pronounced married and shared their first kiss.
"What an incredible night this was," said Lambert, who wore an electric blue satin gown with a sequined train for the midnight ceremony and carried a bouquet of blue hydrangeas. "This was an amazing night. Everything was absolutely perfect."
Rudd, who wore a white tuxedo with tails and white tennis shoes, said she felt "great relief" at being married because now she's "just like everyone else" and has the same rights.
"It feels great: I'm married," she said with an excited laugh.
Mayor Paul Dyster performed the ceremony, which was attended by some of the state lawmakers whose vote last month made it possible.
Lambert said in the days leading up to the event that she had told Rudd "way back that when this went through we won't wait a moment longer than we have to."
In Albany, the state capital, Mayor Jerry Jennings performed marriages at 12:01 a.m. Sunday in the Common Council's chambers. A state Supreme Court judge waived the state-mandated 24-hour waiting period between the time a marriage license is issued and when a couple can be legally wed, Jennings said.
Above: Albany Mayor Gerald D. Jennings performs the city's first legal same-sex marriage ceremony as Dale Getto, left, marries Barb Laven, both of Albany, at City Hall at 12:01 a.m., Sunday, July 24, 2011. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)
New York's vote to allow gay marriage provided fresh energy to the national drive for same-sex weddings. New York joined Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont, along with Washington, D.C.
Advocates and opponents, many of whom reject same-sex marriage on religious grounds, said the New York vote, propelled by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, would invigorate both sides.
Protests were planned around the state for Sunday, including at the state Capitol.
In Niagara Falls, Lambert and Rudd chose Luna Island at the foot of the Falls for the site of their ceremony, following in the tradition of countless other couples who've been marrying there for more than a century. The waterfalls were lit, for the first time, in the hues of the rainbow, the symbol of gay equality and pride.
The couple planned a ceremony that would have them saying "I do" at one second past midnight, following a candlelit procession. Plans were for a municipal clerk to be on hand to sign their marriage license after midnight, along with a state Supreme Court judge to waive the 24-hour waiting period.
The Falls also will be the backdrop for a group wedding on Monday, with more than 40 couples planning to simultaneously marry.
On Long Island, Frank Fuertes and Patrick Simeone were married again in North Hempstead, just east of New York City. They married in Quebec three years ago and had considered themselves married since they met and moved in together in 1988. They had a small ceremony with a handful of friends in front of Town Clerk Leslie Gross and planned to be back at "business as usual" Monday morning.
"To me, it was `About time,'" said Fuertes, a 55-year-old operations director for a retail company.
Simeone, a stylist on Long Island's north shore, said he's only sorry it took New York so long to recognize same-sex marriage.
"It's such a leader in many different ways," he said.