They came to Ave Maria as lovers and left 10 minutes later as husband and husband, married in a New York chapel despite a ban on gay marriage in New York.
"I never thought this would finally happen," said 25-year-old Omar Portacio, who on Saturday immediately adopted the surname of his partner John, with whom he has lived in Brooklyn for a year.
AdvertisementTo celebrate their union, Omar and John came to a small "wedding chapel" that opened two weeks ago in the trendy, bohemian Lower East Side neighborhood.
"We want to be recognized by our friends and our family, to be treated as a married couple," Omar told AFP.
"Being married means a lot, it shows our love for each other, it shows we are accepted and recognized as a couple, it is not just somebody we are living with."
Excited beyond measure to be able to say "yes" just like traditional couples, John, 26, agreed.
"We wanted to make it a public thing, so everyone knows," he said just minutes before the ceremony.
The space, no bigger than a garage and located directly on Norfolk Street, prepared for the occasion with several rows of chairs for guests and artificial flowers on the walls.
The chapel was created by the owners of the space, Kevin Fey and Joseph Peter, who decided to change its purpose every four months. This time, it's a chapel dedicated to organizing marriage ceremonies, charging between 100 and 500 dollars per couple.
The chapel is devoid of religious symbols and Kevin became a "reverend" at the age of 23 with a simple click of the mouse: Universal Life Church grants that title to just about anyone on the Internet almost instantaneously.
"I became a reverend online just for this," he said. "I've performed 15 weddings, eight of them real and the rest were pretend weddings."
As in Las Vegas, heterosexual couples can get married in just 10 minutes in a procedure that is as legally valid as a traditional marriage performed in city hall. Others do it just for fun.
"Some people are getting married outside of the country, but they want to have a ceremony with their friends here in New York," explained Fey, decked out in a sober white suit for the occasion.
The ceremony includes the traditional exchange of rings and vows, but is stripped of any religious references.
The other three couples married on Saturday were merely symbolic acts of protest to New York's gay marriage ban, as with Sara and Lucy or Michael and Jaeme -- all in their twenties.
"I am doing it because it is appalling that we still need to have this fight for equal rights," said Jaeme, 29, who took the opportunity to wear a wedding dress.
In the United States, gay marriage is still banned in most of the nation's 50 states. It has been legalized in Iowa and five New England states north of New York: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.
But 40 years after the Stonewall riots -- an uprising started at a New York City bar of the same name -- launched the gay liberation movement worldwide, New York has yet to pass legislation legalizing same-sex marriage.
The New York State Assembly voted earlier this year on a bill to that effect, and Governor David Paterson has vowed to enact the legislation although it still faces a pitched battle in the state senate.
"Hopes are high that when the New York Senate returns to business in September, it will move to pass the marriage bill already passed by the assembly," said Evan Wolfson, executive director of the Freedom to Marry movement.
According to State Senator Tom Duane, an openly gay Democrat, "New Yorkers support same-sex marriage in large part because they believe that denying gay couples the right to marry is legally and morally wrong.
"I am confident," he added, "that marriage equality will pass this year and that this legislation will pass with bipartisan support in the senate."
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