By Marie-Louise Gumuchian and Erin McLaughlin, CNN
LONDON (CNN) — Andrew Wale is a writer and actor. His partner, Neil Allard, is a guesthouse owner. Together, they helped make history.
After the clock struck midnight on Friday, the couple were among the first men marrying men and women marrying women in a range of ceremonies across England and Wales as a historic law legalizing same-sex marriage finally comes into force.
Wale and Allard have long known they wanted to commit officially and have waited five years for gay and lesbian couples to be able exchange vows legally in their home country.
That day has finally come.
“When we were born, it was illegal to be gay, let alone get married,” Wale, 49, told CNN during last-minute preparations ahead of the wedding. “I didn’t think about the possibility for most of my life. It is only really recently that suddenly the option seemed to be on its way.”
The marriage law was the final victory in a long battle that has already secured the same age of consent as heterosexuals and the right to adopt. England and Wales are among 15 countries as well as parts of the United States and Mexico that allow same-sex marriage. The Netherlands was the first in 2001, and last year Brazil, Uruguay, New Zealand and France also joined the list.
The opulent splendor of the Royal Pavilion in the English city of Brighton provided the backdrop to Wale’s and Allard’s marriage. Theirs was the first same-sex wedding in a city that celebrates gay pride every year and is proud of its history of inclusion.
As the winners of a competition by the local council to find the right couple for the historic occasion, Wale and Allard exchanged vows shortly after midnight beneath the nine lotus-shaped chandeliers hung from the gilded cockleshell domed ceiling of the music room, where King George IV’s guests were once entertained with Handel or Italian opera.
‘They are equal’
Going through final details with the wedding’s organizers, Wale and Allard said they were excited beyond measure.
Both had agreed civil partnership did not feel like full equality and decided to wait for marriage. But there was no sign that this would be possible until recently.
The same-sex couples bill was published by Britain’s coalition government in January last year. In July, the legislation was approved to allow same-sex couples to officially marry in England and Wales.
Prime Minister David Cameron faced vocal opposition from some members of his Conservative Party. The Church of England also objected, and was given an exemption from conducting same-sex ceremonies.
But despite some opposition, the bill passed.
Legalizing gay marriage says “something deeper about the sort of country we are,” Cameron told Attitude magazine in a recent interview.
“This is a country with proud traditions of tolerance, respect and equal worth. With this reform we are being true to those values. In turn we are sending a powerful message to young people growing up who are uncertain about their sexuality: We are telling them that they are equal.”
Scotland, which will hold a referendum on independence from Britain in September, last month became the latest to give the green light to gay marriage. The fourth British link, Northern Ireland, has stated it does not intend to introduce same-sex marriage legislation.
Gay couples in Britain have spent years campaigning for gay rights. Civil partnerships were introduced in England and Wales in 2005, effectively giving gay couples the same legal rights as heterosexuals.
But campaigners insisted that only full equality would do. Unlike France, where legalizing same-sex marriage prompted fierce opposition from many social conservatives and the Catholic Church, there were no mass protests in Britain.
But for all the joy the weddings will bring, discrimination and bigotry remain issues in Britain.
In January, a local councilor was suspended from the anti-immigration UK Independence Party (UKIP) after blaming devastating floods on the legalization of gay marriage.
“We never really hold hands in the street, we’re quite careful about those kind of things — simply because it was always quite a dangerous thing to do. It’s still not entirely safe. Our friends were beaten up six months ago for holding hands in the street,” Wale said.
“Now I am feeling slightly more relaxed about that kind of thing. I feel I have rights to be affectionate with this person that I am going to marry — otherwise what does it represent?”
A recent Yougov poll in Britain showed that most people support the new change in law allowing same-sex couples to marry, but a third still think gay people are treated worse than straight people.
Making a statement
For Wale and Allard, the Royal Pavilion is where they met when they first started dating, so it was a fitting venue for the next step in their relationship.
They put much thought into personalizing the ceremony, which was attended by friends from as far away as New York, and there was a cellist and songs sung by friends.
The media also attended — as with many of the first other same-sex weddings on Saturday. The attention has been so huge that the local council has even received requests from ordinary Britons from across the country asking to attend Wale’s and Allard’s ceremony.
For the couple, exchanging vows is not just about making a statement to each other, but to the world.
“I think it’s important to make those kind of statements, be visible, be proud of who you are and what you are in a world which seems to be stepping backwards in lots of different places,” Wale said. “There are gay people struggling to be allowed to form relationships.”
Many couples getting married say they hope to send out messages of support to other gays facing discriminatory laws in their own countries. Last month, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed into law a bill that toughens penalties against gay people and defines some homosexual acts as crimes punishable by life in prison. In Russia, a “propaganda” law bans even discussion of homosexuality anywhere that children might hear it.
“There are a lot of countries where it is illegal. We can show other countries that we are stepping forward,” Allard, 48, said, adding he felt lucky and privileged.
Instead of gifts, the couple asked their guests to make a donation to Stonewall — a charity that campaigns for equality and justice for lesbians, gay men and bisexuals.
“I want the wedding day to be a fully celebratory experience but at the same time, I don’t want to forget that it’s a relative freedom,” Wale said. “We haven’t reached the end of the line. There is still a long way to go.”
CNN’s Lindsay Isaac contributed to this report