PORTLAND — Michael Snell and Steven Bridges emerged from City Hall early Saturday and stepped into history, as the first of at least a dozen gay couples across Maine who exchanged wedding vows on the first day for same-sex partners to marry.
Forty-four couples obtained marriage licenses in the 10 or so communities from Portland to Bangor that opened their clerk’s offices as early as midnight for the special occasion. Fourteen were married almost immediately in city or town halls, while a few others were planning private ceremonies Saturday.
While the total number of licenses and marriages may have been small, the meaning was huge for the couples and those who gathered to witness the ceremonies.
“I’m overwhelmed,” said Mary Donaldson, 63, of Portland, after she and Roberta Batt, 71, partners for 30 years, were married in the City Council chamber.
“I’m really a private person, so all of this is really too much,” Donaldson said, still shaken by the ceremony. “But I’m grateful to the people of Maine for making it happen.”
In South Portland, City Clerk Susan Mooney lined up wedding cakes for the three couples who came into her office to be married starting at 8 a.m. Saturday. Mooney issued eight marriage licenses, including one that went to Heidi Caton and Julie Nowell.
The two were tying the knot before a group of family members at Bug Light Park Saturday afternoon, followed by dinner at the Corner Room in Portland.
The couple, who had a big unofficial wedding last June, said they want to make their marriage legal.
“We are dotting our i’s and crossing our t’s,” said Nowell, who intends to take Caton’s last name.
The doors of Town Hall opened for marriage licenses at 9 a.m. in Brunswick, where the couples getting married included Mary Parker and Becky Roak. They brought with them their 22-month-old daughter, Grace, the birth child of Roak.
Parker said it was important to get married because it gives legal protection to Grace in the event of their deaths as well as assuring her own legal status as a mother of Grace.
“Being a parent is a beautiful thing and I am just really happy to have this opportunity. Grace is the best thing that has ever happened to me,” Parker said.
Other towns that issued marriage licenses or hosted ceremonies Saturday morning included Augusta, Bangor, Brewer, Falmouth, Freeport, Gardiner and Hallowell.
In Portland, couples began arriving at City Hall around 9:30 p.m. and lined up to enter at 10 p.m. A band played standards in the foyer and well-wishers supplied flowers and cupcakes. Two protesters were soon outnumbered by the crowd of supporters that gathered on the plaza in front of City Hall.
As the activities began, City Hall repeatedly erupted with cheers.
Family members, friends and others woo-hooed each time a gay couple emerged from the city clerk’s office, clutching one of the 15 marriage licenses that were issued there.
Bystanders cheered again for each of the six couples who got married at City Hall between midnight and 2 a.m. Three weddings were officiated by city clerks; three were officiated by notaries.
And a crowd of nearly 300 well-wishers greeted couples with shouts of congratulations and strains of “All You Need Is Love” as they departed City Hall arm in arm.
For most of the couples who got married, the vows weren’t fancy, the surroundings weren’t ideal and the process of applying for a license took longer than the ceremony itself.
The clerks asked each couple if they would take their significant other as a “lawfully wedded spouse” and at the end pronounced them “married.”
But the simplicity didn’t faze the couples or their guests, including Katie Snell, whose father, Michael Snell, 53, and his partner of nine years, Steven Bridges, 42, were the first gay couple to be married in Maine, shortly after midnight.
“What it lacks in romance it makes up for in significance,” said Katie Snell, 27, who traveled from Boston with her sister, Carolyn Snell, 25, to witness their father’s important day.
Michael Snell, a massage therapist, and Bridges, a retail manager, had planned to get married this summer. Now, they plan to hold a reception this summer, possibly on a local beach, where they will renew their vows.
“This was going to be such a historic night, we decided, why not do it now?” Bridges said before the ceremony, for which the couple wore matching black T-shirts, bearing the words, “Love is Love,” with faded blue jeans and dress black shoes.
Bridges and Snell weren’t ready for all of the attention they received as the first gay Mainers to tie the knot. About 20 reporters and photographers crowded into the city clerk’s office to witness their wedding, including some who work for national and international news agencies.
“It may be the most covered marriage in the history of the state,” said Mayor Michael Brennan, who got emotional when he congratulated Bridges and Snell after the ceremony, telling them, “I’m very proud of you.”
Bridges and Snell had been united in a commitment ceremony six years ago, so when a reporter asked them if they felt “more married” after the wedding, Snell responded, “No, it’s just official.”
They said being married validates their relationship and means that their commitment is equal to any other couple’s in the eyes of the law.
The occasion attracted fewer than the 50 couples that City Clerk Katherine Jones anticipated. Two couples who wanted to get married were turned away because they had been married before and didn’t have the necessary documentation to prove that they were now divorced.
“We thought that there were going to be a lot more people,” Jones said. “But it was touching. (Gay) couples have waited a long, long time for this.”
Once a license is issued, a couple has 90 days to get married.
On Nov. 6, Maine joined Maryland and Washington as the first states to approve same-sex marriage at the polls. Same-sex marriage is now legal in nine states and Washington, D.C.
With 53 percent of voters approving, Mainers decided to allow same-sex couples to get marriage licenses.
In 2009, the Maine Legislature passed a law legalizing same-sex marriage, but voters overturned it later that year in a people’s veto referendum.
The two protesters outside Portland City Hall were the voice of the opposition, which they expressed by singing religious songs.
One identified himself only as a Portland resident and a street preacher.
He said, “This is wickedness. They are bringing judgment upon Maine and the nation.”
The other man would not be interviewed.
The controversy and recent resolution to Maine’s gay-marriage question is what brought Martin Gelin to Portland for opening day of same-sex weddings. Gelin is a freelance journalist who lives in New York City and writes for the Dagens Nyheter (Daily News) in Stockholm, Sweden, where same-sex unions have been recognized since the mid-1990s.
“In Sweden, which is socially liberal, most people think America is a socially conservative country because of the dominance of (far-right) Republicans in the media,” Gelin said. “But the gay rights movement started in the U.S. There was a lot happening around this issue lately and it’s interesting because it’s all happening so fast.”
The fact that gay marriage has been a contentious issue in Maine is one reason Rose Mahoney, a notary who lives in Portland, decided to offer her services free of charge to any couples who wanted to get married Saturday morning. The city charged $40 for a license, $125 for a marriage ceremony and $15 for a marriage certificate.
Mahoney married two couples Saturday morning; she usually marries one couple per year.
“It’s such an honor to be part of this,” she said. “I wasn’t so successful in marriage myself, so this is my contribution to the institution.”
Mahoney conducted the marriage ceremony for Donaldson and Batt, semi-retired antiques dealers who lived in New York before moving to Maine. After years of keeping their relationship private, neither woman was eager to give her last name for this story.
“A lot of gay people are very quiet,” Batt said. “They know there’s a lot of animosity toward gay people and so they do what they can to avoid it. Many people don’t realize how many gay people there are.”
Batt acknowledged that the legalization of marriage in Maine is a clear sign that things are changing and people no longer have to be quiet about whom they love.
“We never thought it would happen,” she said.
For Jeff Burdick, 41, and Josh Laton, 37, being able to get married Saturday morning was a matter of good fortune. Both social workers, they have been together for 14 years and moved from Florida to Portland in August when Burdick got a new job.
“It validates our relationship,” Laton said. “We’re proud to be Mainers. Moving here was the best thing we could have done. We’ve found such a sense of community and acceptance here.”
But the best thing, Laton said, “is being able to call Jeff my husband. After 14 years, boyfriend wasn’t right and partner sounds so business-like.”
Christine Horne, the city’s vital records clerk, married two couples Saturday morning.
“It wasn’t any different from marrying heterosexual couples,” Horne said. “It was nice, you know, when you see people who love each other. That’s what I like.”
Staff Writers Tom Bell, Matt Byrne and Beth Quimby contributed to this report
Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: