Updated Friday, December 7, 2012 at 06:13 AM
Hundreds of King County residents made history early Thursday by getting some of the state's first-ever marriage licenses for same-sex couples.
Lined around the county's downtown Seattle administration building, snaked through a winding queue and, finally, crammed into a processing room, the couples cried, shared love stories and passed around flowers.
Just after midnight, they rejoiced.
"I am so glad this night has finally arrived," County Executive Dow Constantine said of Washington's official recognition of same-sex marriages. "This has been a long struggle nationally and in our state."
Constantine, a longtime gay-marriage supporter, signed the first license at 12:01 a.m., when the voter-approved Referendum 74 formally took effect around the state. Recorder's Office staffers planned to stay open throughout the night and until 6:30 p.m. Thursday to accommodate as many gay and lesbian couples as possible.
More than 200 couples were in line to get licenses at midnight.
The first to actually receive them was a group of community leaders, including the acknowledged matriarchs of the movement in the state, West Seattle residents Pete-e Petersen and Jane Abbott Lighty.
"It's very humbling to be chosen first. We feel like we're representing a lot of people in the state who have wanted this for a long time," said Petersen, 85, who has been with Lighty for 35 years. "It's hard to explain the thrill that we are really going to get married."
Washington is now one of seven states that allow same-sex marriage. The District of Columbia does, too, and Maine and Maryland will soon, after also approving it last month.
Same-sex couples here can't legally exchange vows until Sunday, because state law mandates a three-day waiting period after a marriage license is issued.
But many of those who got the state's first same-sex licenses Thursday said the wait will seem like nothing compared with the wait they have already endured.
Garriel Keeble and Chris Grekoff said they agreed to marry 40 years ago, after meeting four years earlier.
"I guess it was a long engagement," Keeble said cheerily as she entered the gates outside of the administration building.
"Things have really changed in the past 40 years," the 62-year-old added.
For Kelly Middleton and Amanda Dollente, the wait to marry has not been quite so long. The Auburn couple has been together for a year and a half, including eight months as domestic partners.
On Wednesday, they were the first in line outside the administration building. It was 4 p.m., hours before they would get a marriage license.
"We've been so anxious about this," said Middleton, a 24-year-old aerospace quality inspector, bundled up in a hooded sweatshirt to fight the cold. "This day couldn't have come soon enough for us."
Throughout the evening, the young couple watched as the line behind them and crowd around them grew.
By 9:30 p.m., when county officials were preparing to open the gates, some 350 people were waiting in a line that circled around the block. The atmosphere resembled a party — the crowd cheered, horns from passing cars signaled approval and a makeshift choir sung "Going to the Chapel of Love."
The couples — and their friends, family members and supporters — exchanged flowers, candy, doughnuts and Champagne.
There were no signs of significant protests.
The county opened the gates at 10 p.m. before officially issuing the first licenses just after midnight.
County staffers said they were happy to work extra hours on such a festive occasion.
"This is marriage," county spokesman Cameron Satterfield said. "It's one of the few happy things that we get to do in government."
Constantine personally signed licenses for the first couples, using the same pen Gov. Chris Gregoire used to sign the Legislature's gay marriage bill in February.
That bill prompted Referendum 74, which voters approved 53.7 percent to 46.3 percent in last month's election, according to the Secretary of State's Office.
The measure did particularly well in King County, where it earned support from 67 percent of voters.
Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.
BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Jane Abbott Lighty, left, and her partner of 35 years, Pete-e Petersen, are the first same-sex couple to receive a marriage license signed by King County Executive Dow Constantine, right, at 12:01 a.m. Thursday.
ELAINE THOMPSON / AP
King County Executive Dow Constantine, right, leads a cheer as the clock strikes midnight and he can issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples Thursday in Seattle. First in line are Jane Abbott Lighty, and Pete-e Petersen.