Gay marriages began Monday in Hawaii with six couples at a Waikiki resort exchanging vows side-by-side in front of a few hundred guests while more same-sex couples watched and waited their turn.
Elsewhere in Honolulu, an openly gay Unitarian minister wed his partner of 15 years in a ceremony attended by clergy who pushed for the new marriage law and Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who called last month's special legislative session that produced the change.
Saralyn Morales was among the six couples who tied the knot at the resort shortly after midnight, when the new law took effect.
“It's about making that commitment to the person that I want to spend the rest of my life with,” she said shortly after cutting a small wedding cake with her spouse, Isajah Morales.
Hawaii helped start the national gay marriage discussion more than two decades ago when a same-sex couple was denied a marriage license, leading to a court fight that eventually helped prompt Congress to pass the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. Part of that law, which stipulated that marriage was between a man and woman, was struck down earlier this year by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Tourism is the lifeblood of Hawaii and officials believe the islands will benefit from the new law. An estimate from a University of Hawaii researcher says the state will get a $217 million tourism boost over the next three years as a result of gay marriage.
The new law allows couples to register for a license and be married the same day, a process that appeals to tourists. Couples can sign up for a license online then be verified by any license agent throughout the state.
Agents have set up shop throughout the islands, from resorts on Maui and the Big Island to hard-to-reach places on Kauai.
Saralyn and Isajah Morales began filling out license applications a few minutes after midnight, along with other couples. Several license agents huddled around four laptops in a tiny conference room, refreshing their web browsers to coax a state-run website to load.
A few feet away, wedding guests sipped champagne, dined on curried shrimp and portabella mushroom sliders, listened to piano music and took pictures with the seven cakes on display for the occasion.
Couples who walked in to register on the spot posed with a three-tiered centerpiece cake, adorned with pink and white roses.
“Next!” Keola Akana exclaimed after being the first of the group to complete the license application with his groom, Ethan Wung. Akana said he and Wung were getting married after entering into a civil union last year so they could receive federal benefits.
“Got dinged on taxes last year because we're not legally married federally, and we will be married for taxes this year,” Akana said. “Now we're equal to everybody in Hawaii that's married, everybody in the nation and the world that's legally married, so that's an honor.”
One of the organizers, Honolulu Pride Chairman Michael Golojuch Jr., said early Monday that more than three dozen couples had signed up to wed.
“We started this battle 23 years ago and we get to finish it tonight,” Golojuch said.
Hawaii businesses now are looking for ways to embrace the gay community, he said.
“They opened up their doors to us, their hearts to us,” Golojuch said. “That's what we're seeing with a lot of the business community that understands that $217 million is what our economy needs to keep on going.”