Germany celebrated its first same-sex weddings Sunday, after a new law came into force putting gay and lesbian couples on equal legal footing with heterosexual couples. Town halls in Berlin, Hamburg, and elsewhere opened their doors to mark the event, made possible by a surprise vote in Parliament three months earlier. "We're making a single exception to fire a symbolic starter pistol because same-sex marriages are possible from today," said a registrar in Berlin's Schoeneberg district. He said it was appropriate for Schoeneberg to hold the first same-sex wedding in the country because it has long been a center of gay life in the German capital, reports the AP. About 60 guests and an equal number of journalists packed into Schoeneberg town hall's "Golden Room" to witness the marriage of Karl Kreile and his partner of 38 years, Bodo Mende.
Kreile, 59, said it was an "incredible honor" to be the first same-sex couple to marry in Germany, noting that he and Mende, 60, had been campaigning for gay rights for decades. Germany introduced registered partnerships in 2002, but those gave same-sex couples fewer rights than heterosexual couples who married. Chancellor Angela Merkel long opposed same-sex marriages, only agreeing to a free vote in Parliament on the matter in June, shortly before national elections. The bill, which enjoyed strong public support, passed by a wide margin, with 393 lawmakers voting in favor of marriage equality and 226—including Merkel—voting against. "This was long overdue in Germany and so this is a day of great joy," said Joerg Steinert, who heads the Berlin branch of Germany's lesbian and gay association. There are about 43,000 registered partnerships in Germany in 2015, most of which are expected to be converted into marriages in the coming months. (Read more same-sex marriage stories.)