Just sitting down at a desk at the marriage bureau at D.C. Superior Court on Wednesday was too much for Angelisa Young. She cried so hard that she eventually had to bury her face in her fiancee's chest.
About a half-hour later, Young and her partner, Sinjoyla Townsend, who met 13 years ago in a Constitutional Law class at the University of the District of Columbia, became the first same-sex couple to apply to be married in the District as the city officially joined five states in allowing gay marriage.
"I'm just so happy. We're whole now. We will actually be a true family like everyone else," Young, 47, said as Townsend, 41, used her thumb to wipe away her soon-to-be wife's tears. After the couple from Southeast Washington rose from the desk, couples in line behind them broke into spontaneous applause and cheers.
For Young, Townsend and the cheering masses, being there, in the tiny and usually sleepy marriage bureau, on the very first day meant everything. There was the history of it all, but mostly it was about having the nation's capital validate their relationships and their families.
For the couples in line Wednesday and those who follow, it was the culmination of a three-decade struggle for equality. Advocates had long known that the D.C. Council would approve same-sex marriage. But the timing had to be right. Congress and the White House could have killed the bill, which had to clear a congressional review period, so advocates waited for a president and legislature sympathetic to gay rights and home rule. In the meantime, the gay community picked up important rights in the District, including a domestic partnership law, before the council passed the same-sex marriage bill in December.
Still, there were no white wedding dresses or tuxedos among the gay couples Wednesday because they won't be able to marry until Tuesday, at the earliest. Gay or straight, the District requires a three-day waiting period from the day you get your license. Young and Townsend plan to marry that day at the Human Rights Campaign headquarters as part of a ceremony involving other same-sex couples.
The line to get into the marriage bureau was composed of racially diverse couples of all generations and appeared to include more women than men. By the end of the day, 151 couples had filed to be married, far surpassing the dozen or so applications the bureau typically collects on a single day. Some brought their children or spoke of the importance of their change in status to their sons and daughters.
"It's a great source of pride for her and, deep down, a source of relief and stability," said Silver Spring resident Deborah Weiner, referring to her 15-year-old daughter. Weiner stood in line with her partner of 24 years, Janne Harrelson.
There were congratulatory hugs, commemorative pens and chocolate cupcakes to mark the moment. But it was also a scene of quiet anticipation as applicants sipped coffee, checked their BlackBerrys and prepared to head to work after filing their forms and paying $45 in fees.
Court officials had called in extra security officers to monitor the halls for protesters -- but the officers far outnumbered the protesters. And the celebration largely overshadowed the presence of four people from a church in Kansas who gathered outside the courthouse, chanting and carrying protest signs, one of which read: "Mourn for your sins."
The crowd included local religious leaders who showed their support for same-sex marriage, and dozens of college students cheered as couples emerged hand in hand from the courthouse. Representatives of the Hyatt Regency handed out roses and offered discounts on catering and accommodations for same-sex weddings held before the end of the year.
Absent from the event was Bishop Harry Jackson, one of the leading opponents of the law. Jackson, pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, has tried unsuccessfully to block the measure by seeking a public vote on same-sex marriage.
Jackson said he would continue to press his case in court in an effort to "let the people vote."
The D.C. Council approved same-sex marriage on an 11 to 2 vote Dec. 15, and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) signed the bill into law soon after, saying that he hoped the District would provide a road map for gay rights activists in other jurisdictions, including possibly Maryland. Last week, Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D) said the state would begin recognizing same-sex marriages from other places.
On Wednesday, David A. Catania (I-At Large), the bill's chief sponsor and one of two openly gay council members, signed autographs and handed out cupcakes in the hallway. Fenty issued a statement congratulating the couples and saying the city had "taken a historic leap forward, becoming a more open and inclusive city in which all residents can thrive."
But even as couples planned their marriages, there was some concern the celebrations could be cut short by Congress or the courts. Members of Congress could try to block the District from implementing the law through the appropriations process, and the D.C. Court of Appeals has not ruled on Jackson's efforts.
"Who knows how long this will last?" said Sharra Greer, 37, as she waited in line with her partner of 10 years, Darcy Kemnitz, 46. "As long as Democrats are in the majority, we're hoping they can hold the line."
Many of the couples were registered as domestic partners and covered by a partner's health insurance policy. But marriage status should give them all of the rights and responsibilities afforded under D.C. or state law, as long as they live in a jurisdiction that recognizes same-sex marriage.
Michael Lavin, 55, and his partner Joe Peters, 48, of Brookeville, in Montgomery County, have been together for 17 years. Although they are registered domestic partners, Peters had to pay a hefty tax when his name was added to the deed to Lavin's farm. Peters also said that if they remained unmarried and one of them became incapacitated, the other could be denied access to him. "This just gives us an extra level of protection," Peters said.
But not all couples who made their way into the wedding bureau were there for the District's historic day. Karen Huang, 30, of Rosslyn, wearing a white dress, walked into the courthouse chapel for her scheduled wedding.
Huang was accompanied by her maid of honor, carrying a bouquet of flowers, as well as her fiance, David Chou, 30. Huang responded quickly when strangers inquired.
"I'm marrying him," she said laughing and pointing to Chou. "Not her," she said pointing to her maid of honor.