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Octogenarian Gay-Rights Pioneers Wed in California

Many gay couples planned to head to county clerk offices around California on Tuesday to get marriage licenses after the state Supreme Court's decision legalizing same-sex marriage took effect late Monday afternoon.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom officiated one of the first same-sex weddings Monday night. Two elderly lesbians — icons of the gay-rights movement — held a private ceremony at City Hall.

Phyllis Lyon, 83, and Del Martin, 87, became a couple more than half a century ago and went on to start the first national group for lesbians. After marrying in a small ceremony in Newsom's office, the elderly women emerged to an adoring crowd.

Newsom said presiding over the wedding ceremony was a great privilege.

"I think, today, marriage as an institution has been strengthened," he said. "I think, today, marriage has been affirmed."

Four years ago, Newsom challenged the state's same-sex marriage ban and ordered city officials to marry gay couples. He asked Lyon and Martin to go first. The California Supreme Court later ruled that Newsom overstepped his authority. The court then invalidated Lyon and Martin's marriage license, along with 4,000 others.

The same court, after considering the constitutionality of California's same-sex marriage ban, recently ruled that gay men and lesbians do have a constitutional right to marry.

Standing in front of a three-tiered wedding cake, Lyon rested her hands on the back of her wife's wheelchair and remembered when they met.

"When we first got together, we weren't really thinking about getting married," she said. "We were just thinking about getting together."

And with that, the couple cut their wedding cake and left for a quiet reception with friends and family.

Stuart Gaffney and his partner of 21 years, John Lewis, were on hand for the celebration. They planned to be married Tuesday morning at San Francisco City Hall. Their families had flown in from the Midwest, New York and Southern California, including Gaffney's parents, an interracial couple who wed after California legalized interracial marriage six decades ago.

"Well, they're both going to be here with us in City Hall tomorrow, watching us exchange vows. And as we look at each other with love, we're going to see that love reflected back by our parents, right there with us, another generation in our family getting legally married," he said. "It's going to be a beautiful day."

Outside City Hall, hundreds of supporters and some opponents of gay marriage gathered. Those protesting carried signs that said "Re-criminalize Sodomy" and "God Hates Lying Sinners." Born-again Christian Bill Hampsmire traveled from Fremont, Calif., to demonstrate against the nuptials.

"I think God is going to destroy this nation, not just ... California," he said. "Look at all our jobs, our jobs are going overseas. God is judging this nation. It's going to get worse."

Helen Gould of Oakland, Calif., held a sign that read "Married Heteros Support You."

"I have so many friends who are so excited about getting married, and it's really way past time for married heteros to come forward and support their friends," she said.

More than 650 same-sex couples have made appointments to get marriage licenses in San Francisco, and thousands more are expected to marry around the state in the coming weeks. However, it's not clear what will happen to those marriages if voters approve a constitutional amendment on the ballot in November that would ban gay marriage.

Sarah Varney reports from member station KQED in San Francisco.

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Sarah Varney