With Gov. Chris Gregoire's signature on Monday, Washington joins six other states and the District of Columbia in allowing same-sex couples to marry.

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OLYMPIA — Eight years ago, Jane Abbott Lighty and Pete-e Petersen walked into the King County Recorder’s Office and applied for a license to marry.

From Boston to San Francisco, gay marriage was in the air and the two women, by then together nearly three decades, were among dozens of gay couples challenging Washington’s ban on such unions.

They were denied a license, and as they left, Petersen recalled, “Jane and I turned around and said: ‘We’ll be back.’ “

At the state Capitol Monday, Petersen and Lighty looked on as Gov. Chris Gregoire signed into law landmark legislation making it possible for them to eventually go back for that marriage license — decades after they first met on a blind date in Sacramento, Calif., and fell in love.

Speaking to a packed reception room and an overflow crowd in the balconies and hallways outside, a sometimes emotional Gregoire said, “This is a very proud moment for the state of Washington.

“It’s a day that historians will mark as a milestone for equal rights — when we did what was right, just and fair and did it together, Republicans and Democrats, gay and straight, young and old.”

The bill signing brought Washington in line with six other states, as well as the District of Columbia, where gays may wed legally.

Washington also becomes the first state in the country to repeal the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriage as between one man and one woman.

The bill signing also came on the same day the New Jersey state Senate passed a measure to recognize same-sex marriages, despite the promise of a veto by Republican Gov. Chris Christie.

Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, who sponsored the House version of Washington’s same-sex marriage bill, said, “Over the next nine months we will all need to work together to tell our stories and defend this victory.” Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, welcomed everyone to “the other side of the rainbow.”

“No matter what the future holds,” he said, “nothing will take this moment in history away from us.”

Same-sex couples in Washington can’t make wedding plans just yet. The changes in the state’s marriage laws won’t take effect for 90 days, until June 7 — at the earliest.

Within hours of the bill signing, same-sex-marriage opponents filed Referendum 73 with the aim of repealing the legislation. If they succeed in collecting 120,577 signatures by June 6, the law would be put on hold until the November elections.

The Rev. Joe Fuiten of Cedar Park Assembly of God Church, among those who filed the referendum, said this day will “not turn out to be so historic. I don’t think it will be more than a blip on the screen.”

He pointed out that, through the state’s domestic-partnership law, same-sex couples in Washington have most of the same privileges of marriage as opposite-sex couples and that he believes that once voters “consider the consequences in terms of education and religious freedom, it will change the dynamic dramatically.”

Signing celebration

But the possibility of that seemed far from the minds of the cheering couples who crowded in and around the reception room at the state Legislative Building to witness the historic signing. Lawmakers standing together at the front of the room mugged for photos, one group crowding together for a shot with a cellphone camera one was holding.

As Gregoire entered the room, the crowd chanted “thank you, thank you” and a short refrain of “four more years” went up as she began to speak. Gregoire is not seeking a third term.

In January, she announced — after years of ambivalence — that she would support same-sex marriage. She recalled her personal journey in reaching that decision, which required her to go against the teachings of her Roman Catholic faith.

As she sat to sign the bill, a lone voice of objection went up: “Don’t betray Christ,” one man yelled.

Petersen, 84, and Lighty, 76, beamed as they made their way toward the governor to be photographed with her and to shake her hand.

Matriarchs of the gay community, they are thrilled that same-sex marriage could happen here in their lifetime.

Through the years they resisted traveling up to Canada or to any of the states where same-sex marriage is legal, holding out for the chance to wed here.

“It is wonderful,” Petersen said. “We didn’t think it would come this soon, but it’s here and we’re so proud of the governor and the Legislature.”

Throughout the Legislative Building, other couples smiled, took photos and hugged. Some cried.

Wearing a shirt that read “Legalize Gay,” Keri Stout, of Seattle, witnessed the signing with her two children — Kaelin, 7, and Cameron, 4.

Stout, 40, said she was married to a man for 10 years; the two divorced after she told him she was a lesbian. She said she wants the same rights she had when she was in a heterosexual marriage.

“To have the rights in my former life and not being able to have the rights now isn’t a discrimination I was prepared for,” she said.

John Medlin and Jeffrey Hedgepeth, both of Seattle, said they already had a big wedding ceremony in Canada in 2003 and were not planning anything quite as elaborate here. Originally from New York, they have been together 35 years.

“I definitely see us as a ‘Till Death Do Us Part’ couple,” Hedgepeth said.

In love in the closet

Petersen and Lighty came of age at a time when most gays found it necessary to keep their sexual orientation and relationships secret.

They had grown up mostly on opposite sides of the country — Petersen in Alabama and Lighty in the San Francisco Bay Area — and later worked in the field of nursing, which ultimately is what brought them together.

Both had had relationships with men because that’s what their families expected. Petersen was engaged four times but never married. Lighty, to please her family, was married to a man — a union that lasted two years.

“Peer pressure at that time to get into a heterosexual marriage was powerful,” she recalled. “My friends were pushing; my family was pushing; the world pushes; society pushes.”

Then, when Petersen was 49 and Lighty was 41, a mutual friend put them in touch with one another.

“I walked in and saw her sitting there, and Pete-e smiled, and it was as if someone plugged her in cause she lit up like a Christmas tree,” Lighty said.

“I liked her,” Petersen said.

They talked for four hours that night, and Lighty two weeks later moved in with Petersen and her 10-year-old niece, whom she had adopted.

“This is the person I had been looking for my whole life,” Lighty said of Petersen. “I never knew anything so strongly in my life. This was absolutely right.”

Yet, despite the strength of their feelings, “we were just living in the closet,” Lighty said. “That’s how you lived in the ’60s and ’70s, and you didn’t talk about it.”

Nor were they active in the fledgling gay movement or in Sacramento’s gay community.

It was only after Petersen and Lighty moved to Seattle in 1986 that they gradually became more socially connected within the gay community. Through their volunteer work with the Seattle Men’s Chorus in 2002, they began to acknowledge their relationship publicly.

Today, their Alki home is filled with mementos of a shared life; the walls covered with photos of appearances they’ve made, prominent people they’ve met, of Petersen’s watercolor paintings.

They are hopeful voters will uphold the law, and if so, they plan eventually to return to the recorder’s office for the license denied them nearly a decade ago.

Seattle Times staff reporter Stephanie Kim and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420

or lturnbull@seattletimes.com

On Twitter @turnbullL