The first same-sex marriages took place in Britain today as couples held midnight ceremonies in a race to be the first to marry.
Prime minister David Cameron hailed the unions, saying marriage was not something that should be denied to anyone because of their sexuality.
Campaigners have spent years battling to end a distinction that many gay couples say made them feel like second class citizens and today was the first day that gay couples could tie the knot in England and Wales.
“For the first time, the couples getting married won’t just include men and women - but men and men, and women and women,” Mr Cameron said in a statement. “When people’s love is divided by law, it is the law that needs to change.”
There may never be a definitive answer over who was officially first to be wed, but among those tying the knot were John Coffey (52) and Bernardo Marti (48) from Pimlico, London, who were married at the Mayfair Library in Westminster.
Westminster City Council timed the ceremony to begin at 11.30pm, so that the couple exchanged vows just as the clock struck midnight, before registrar Tommy Hanover pronounced them “husband and husband”.
Mr Hanover described it as a “pinch-myself” event, something he never thought would be possible.
Explaining the legality of the moment, he said: “Both civil partnerships and marriages join a couple together legally, but the fundamental difference between the two is that the civil partnership is a signing of a document, whereas a marriage is the spoken words that take place at the ceremony.
“Once those words are said, they are legally married. That is exactly what happened here at Mayfair Library seconds after midnight.”
Three more same-sex weddings are scheduled to take place in Westminster today, and the authority so far has 52 couples booked.
Another couple binding their relationship with marriage just after midnight were Peter McGraith and David Cabreza, who married after 17 years together.
The pair married at Islington Town Hall in London, with human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell acting as chief witness at a packed ceremony.
Mr McGraith said he hoped this would send to a powerful signal to other gay couples around the world. “It puts pressure on those places where our rights are completely denied,” said Mr McGraith who has two adopted children with Cabreza.
The British government, with the backing of Mr Cameron, legalised same-sex marriage last July but it was not until this month that couples could register their intention to marry and March 29th was the first possible date for ceremonies.
Gay couples have been allowed since 2005 to enter into “civil partnerships”, conferring the same legal rights as marriage, but campaigners say the distinction gives the impression that society considers gay relationships inferior.
“Put simply, in Britain it will no longer matter whether you are straight or gay - the state will recognise your relationship as equal,” said Mr Cameron.
While the number of countries legalising gay marriage has grown significantly since the Netherlands made the first move in 2000, only 17 currently allow gay couples to marry.
The law’s passage in Britain last summer caused deep splits in Cameron’s ruling Conservative Party.
Despite shifting public attitudes in Britain, research for the BBC showed on Friday that about one in five British adults would turn down an invitation to a gay wedding.
Campaigners hailed the change in the law as a “historic moment” that was marked by flying rainbow-coloured flags, a symbol of the gay movement, over London’s government quarter.
“These weddings will send a powerful signal to every young person growing up to be lesbian, gay or bisexual - you can be who you are and love who you love, regardless of your sexual orientation,” said Ruth Hunt, acting chief executive for leading gay rights charity Stonewall.