San Francisco Wedding March

updated 03/01/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/01/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin have been an item for 51 years, but it finally seemed like the right time to take the plunge. So, on Feb. 12, in the wake of a controversial decision by San Francisco's mayor to permit same-sex marriages, the two women borrowed a pair of wedding rings, rushed to City Hall and became the first of some 2,500 jubilant gay and lesbian couples to tie the knot over a giddy five-day span.

"It's exciting to have a certificate, although we sort of felt we were married for years," says Lyon, 79, a longtime Bay Area lesbian activist, who plunked down $82 for a non-gender-specific marriage license. Adds her new spouse, Del, 83: "Just because we're allowed to marry is no threat to heterosexual institutions."

Of course, not everyone sees things that way. Hours after newly elected mayor Gavin Newsom's startling directive took effect, critics fired off legal salvos in San Francisco County superior court. "The mayor has no more right to issue [gay] marriage licenses than he has to secede the state of California from the Union," said Mathew Staver, who represents one of two conservative public interest groups who charge that Newsom's move violates state law. Indeed, in 2000, California voters passed a ballot initiative recognizing marriages only between men and women, and most legal experts speculated that the city's bold step would not stand up to challenges in court.

All of which helped explain both the joy and the sense of urgency outside City Hall, where thousands of couples—wearing everything from tuxes, tiaras and wedding gowns to flannel shirts—waited in line to get hitched by 200 city employees who worked overtime without pay to accommodate as many as possible. "Marriage means there's no doubt in my mind we're going to be together a long time, and there shouldn't be doubt in anyone else's mind either," says Fernando Quinones, 32, an attorney, who arrived with his partner, architect Kurt Melander, 42. "What brought us here was our love."

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