Hundreds of gay and lesbian couples took advantage of Washington's new same-sex marriage law on Thursday, getting marriage licenses on a historic day filled with celebration.

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More than 800 gay and lesbian couples across Washington state received marriage licenses Thursday during a long and festive day that same-sex marriage supporters called a major moment in the history of the movement.

The couples, some of whom waited for hours to be among the first in line, can hold legally binding weddings starting Sunday under the state’s new same-sex marriage law, which took effect at 12:01 a.m. after winning voter approval in November.

“There are individual stories of those who will get licenses tonight and in the coming days and will have an opportunity to marry after many years of waiting, and those are important stories,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine, who signed the county’s first licenses just after midnight and then stayed until 4 a.m. greeting couples. “But the big story is that we’re taking another step forward as a county, as a state, as a society, as a nation.”

Constantine, a longtime gay-marriage supporter, turned the plaza outside the King County Administration Building in downtown Seattle into a party hall Wednesday in advance of the new law taking effect.

Hundreds braved December temperatures to share love stories, pass around roses and, when the moment came, get legal proof of their commitment.

A young Auburn couple arrived first, at 4 p.m. Wednesday, and spent the next eight hours watching the crowd behind and around them grow in size and spirit.

“We’ve been so anxious about this,” said Kelly Middleton, a 24-year-old aerospace-quality inspector, standing with domestic partner Amanda Dollente. “This day couldn’t have come soon enough for us.”

In all, 489 same-sex couples requested and received licenses during King County’s extended hours of 12:01 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. — more than double the county’s record for licenses issued in a day, according to spokesman Cameron Satterfield.

There were no reports of major protests, in King County or elsewhere. Instead, several gay-marriage opponents said they spent the night reflecting with disappointment on the direction that their state has chosen.

The lines for licenses were shorter in other parts of the state. But many county auditors reported noticeable traffic — especially in Clark County, where a number of same-sex couples living in Oregon applied for licenses.

Pierce County issued the third-most licenses to same-sex couples, about 50, its auditor said. Several other counties issued around a couple dozen each, including Spokane, Snohomish and Island.

In eight counties — many in Eastern Washington where voters rejected Referendum 74 — no same-sex couples applied for licenses.

Major moment

Washington is now one of seven states that recognize same-sex marriage, and the first to do so because of a voter directive. The District of Columbia also allows the unions, and Maine and Maryland soon will, after voters there also approved it last month.

Advocates around the country hailed the win in Washington as a major step forward. The Human Rights Campaign called it a great day that should “remind the country of the imperative that all families be treated equally under the law, no matter where they live.”

Opponents expressed optimism, some arguing that the fight isn’t over.

Joseph Backholm, executive director of Family Policy Institute Washington, wrote in a statement that “while this change in the law is unfortunate, this debate is not over.” He noted that Referendum 74 received just 53.7 percent of the vote and that there are many parts of the country that still overwhelmingly reject same-sex marriage.

But others acknowledged that the defeat in Washington stung.

“It’s the end of the line,” said Pastor Joe Fuiten, of Cedar Park Assembly of God in Bothell. “The gay-marriage supporters won, and the people voted, and that’s what we’re going to have.”

Fuiten, a well-known conservative, said he’s been trying to avoid watching the news.

“I’m not at all angry,” he said. “What I am is sad because I see something great having been lost, and a culture that had affirmed biblical ideas has moved. I see a country turning its back on God and historic and biblical values and turning to new ways that are of uncertain outcomes.”

Cheers and Champagne

Outside of the King County administration building, hundreds of couples also spoke of values — especially commitment and equality.

But mostly, they spoke of love.

Garriel Keeble and Chris Grekoff of Queen Anne said they met 44 years ago in a French-culture class at Nathan Hale High School. Four years later, in 1972, the women knew they wanted to marry.

They finally will on Sunday.

“I guess it was a long engagement,” joked Keeble, now 62.

Around them, many others turned to the couples ahead and behind — as well as to friends, family members and supporters — to share similar stories.

The crowd occasionally burst into spontaneous cheers, especially at the sounds of horns from passing cars. A makeshift choir sang “Chapel of Love.” One lesbian couple that wasn’t seeking a license came anyway to pass out Champagne.

Just after midnight, the couples let out a loud cheer as county staffers swung open the doors to the building.

Inside, officials commemorated the occasion and signed the first licenses for several community leaders, including writer Dan Savage and his partner, Terry Miller, and the acknowledged matriarchs of the movement in Washington, West Seattle residents Pete-e Petersen and Jane Abbott Lighty.

Like many others, the couple of 35 years is planning to marry Sunday.

“It’s hard to explain the thrill,” Petersen said. “We are really going to get married after all this time.”

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or