LONDON Prime Minister David Cameron hailed Britain's first gay marriages on Saturday, saying marriage was not something that should be denied to anyone because of their sexuality.
Campaigners have spent years battling to end a distinction that many gay couples say made them feel like second class citizens and Saturday was the first day that gay couples could tie the knot in England and Wales.
"For the first time, the couples getting married won't just include men and women - but men and men, and women and women," Cameron said in a statement. "When people's love is divided by law, it is the law that needs to change."
The British government, with the backing of Cameron, legalised same-sex marriage last July but it was not until this month that couples could register their intention to marry and March 29 was the first possible date for ceremonies.
Gay couples have been allowed since 2005 to enter into "civil partnerships", conferring the same legal rights as marriage, but campaigners say the distinction gives the impression that society considers gay relationships inferior.
"Put simply, in Britain it will no longer matter whether you are straight or gay - the state will recognise your relationship as equal," said Cameron as couples in London and Brighton on England's south coast held midnight ceremonies in a race to be the first to marry.
"It feels like a silver wedding," said Peter McGraith, who was marrying his partner of 17 years, David Cabreza, at a ceremony in London at one minute past midnight.
McGraith said he hoped this would send to a powerful signal to other gay couples around the world.
"It puts pressure on those places where our rights are completely denied," said McGraith who has two adopted children with Cabreza.
While the number of countries legalising gay marriage has grown significantly since the Netherlands made the first move in 2000, only 17 currently allow gay couples to marry.
The law's passage in Britain last summer caused deep splits in Cameron's ruling Conservative Party, where many are opposed to same-sex marriage because it contradicts their Christian beliefs.
Despite shifting public attitudes in Britain, research for the BBC showed on Friday that about one in five British adults would turn down an invitation to a gay wedding.
The poll, conducted for BBC Radio 5, found that men were nearly twice as likely to stay away as women with 29 percent saying they would not attend.
Campaigners hailed the change in the law as a "historic moment" that was marked by flying rainbow-coloured flags, a symbol of the gay movement, over London's government quarter.
"These weddings will send a powerful signal to every young person growing up to be lesbian, gay or bisexual - you can be who you are and love who you love, regardless of your sexual orientation," said Ruth Hunt, acting chief executive for leading gay rights charity Stonewall. (Editing by Belinda Goldsmith)