"We've been together 20 years; we've been waiting for this moment for 20 years; finally the state will recognize us as we are," said Julie Bernier, who posed for photos on the Statehouse steps with partner Joan Andresen before the ceremony. Bernier and Andresen, who both work at Plymouth State University, never sought a commitment ceremony or other symbolic recognition of their relationship before Tuesday.
"I didn't believe in doing it until it meant something," Bernier said.
As ceremonies go, the outdoors event that began at 11 p.m. Monday was equal parts political rally, party and personal triumph.
"We really didn't believe that we'd be able to see this accomplished within one year but it has happened," state Rep. Jim Splaine, a sponsor of the civil unions bill, told the cheering crowd of about 200. "One thing we have to keep in mind is that there is much more to do. We have to continue the journey to make sure that we have marriage equality, full marriage equality with the word marriage soon."
New Hampshire's civil unions law enacted by the Democrat-dominated Legislature early last year and signed by Democratic Gov. John Lynch in May, gives same sex couples the same rights, responsibilities and obligations of marriage without calling the union a marriage. New Hampshire is the fourth state in the nation to allow civil unions.
"We are a citizen legislature and we legislated this into being," said state Rep. Gail Morrison, a Democrat and co-organizer of the event who entered into a civil union with her longtime partner.
John Davey and Mark Brodeur brought gold wedding bands to exchange during their ceremony. Together 10 years since meeting online, Davey, 34, and Brodeur, 48, held a commitment ceremony with friends several years ago, but became the first couple to seek a civil union license in their hometown of Stratham when they became available last month.
"That was just for to say that we loved each other, that we're committed," Davey said of the commitment ceremony. "This is to show the world this is who we are, this is finally recognized in New Hampshire."
There were no protesters at the Statehouse, though one man, Michael Hein, said he drove 180 miles from Augusta, Maine, so he could "report to the people of Maine that this is going on next door." Hein also passed out statements from his group, The Christian Civic League of Maine, which denounces homosexuality.
"Without our vigilance in Maine, (civil unions are) something that could occur as soon as next year," Hein said.
After making brief group vows together, couples walked through an archway decorated with rainbow ribbons and a "just married" banner to meet officiants for individual ceremonies. As they walked through, fireworks from the city's New Year's celebration lit up the sky.
New Hampshire follows Vermont, Connecticut and New Jersey in allowing civil unions. Massachusetts is the only state that allows marriage. New Hampshire estimates that as many as 3,500 to 4,000 civil unions will be performed this first year.