From Pilgrim Fathers to pink weddings

The marriage of same-sex couples will be legal from Monday in the place where modern America was born, reports David Usborne. Provincetown expects an avalanche of applications - and a tidal wave of criticism from conservatives
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Alison Hayder shuffles through the papers on her desk in her office in the big white church on Provincetown's main street. She knows she has a wedding on Monday, but she has momentarily forgotten the names of the happy couple. "There we are. Cody and Jim. They're coming from Minnesota."

Alison Hayder shuffles through the papers on her desk in her office in the big white church on Provincetown's main street. She knows she has a wedding on Monday, but she has momentarily forgotten the names of the happy couple. "There we are. Cody and Jim. They're coming from Minnesota."

The Rev Hayder, a small woman with grey hair and huge round glasses, has been conducting same-sex commitment ceremonies for years. This is Provincetown, after all. Perched on the tip of the scorpion's tail that is Cape Cod, it is famous as a gay centre. Even among the roughly 3,800 people who live here permanently, more than half are gay or lesbian.

But Monday's wedding will be different, or at least that is her hope. More than six months after the Supreme Court of Massachusetts ruled that the state was legally obliged to give homosexuals exactly the same rights to marry as straight couples - and set 17 May as the day that the ceremony should become legal - doubts still nagged. No one here is certain that last-gasp efforts by conservative groups this weekend to have the decision overturned might not succeed.

But the town is trying not to worry much about such legal and political shenanigans. It has to assume that come dawn on Monday the decision of the Supreme Court justices will still be standing.

If that is true, Provincetown is ready to make history as the first fully accepted gay weddings in America are allowed to go forward here as well as across Massachusetts. The state's people will also be ready to make a little money from it, especially in Provincetown. It is a social, cultural and political revolution that the rest of America may hardly be ready for, but on Monday as many as 100 same-sex couples will file through the handsome town hall on Commercial Street and complete the necessary forms to obtain a licence to marry. In theory they must wait three days before going through with the ceremony, but some will seek a waiver and exchange vows before sundown.

With luck, Cody and Jim will be among them. Just as soon as they have their licence and their waiver, Ms Haider will be waiting. You might call her the archbishop of gay Provincetown. Hers is the Unitarian Universalist Church, which for years has cast a benevolent eye on gay couples. No other church here is willing to preside over gay weddings, even the Episcopalians, despite recently consecrating their first openly gay bishop in nearby New Hampshire.

Showing off the rainbow-coloured stole she will wear over her sober navy blue robe, Ms Hayder admits astonishment about what has happened. "I am a little bit amazed. I don't think any of us really thought that this issue would snowball in the way it has and that we would see the possibility of gays entering marriage in our lifetime," She says she is likely to cry at the first "I do".

Provincetown will be the centre of the nation's attention at least for a day. And nobody here will mind. Aside from the 200 gay and lesbians expected at town hall when it opens at 8am on Monday, there will also be hordes of reporters ready to witness the landmark day. Struggling to ensure that everything goes smoothly will be the tiny staff of the town government, assisted by about 50 volunteers.

They will help applicants with the forms, make sure they have their blood-test results - applicants must prove they do not carry syphilis - and explain what they must do next to solemnise their union. All will also hand out little buttons with the message, "I Do - Support Same Sex Marriage".

Pat Fitzpatrick, the director of tourism, believes that it is fitting for the town to be making this history. It was on these shores, she points out, that the Mayflower made landfall in 1640. In the five weeks before its crew and passengers set sail again for the final destination of Plymouth, just across the bay, they wrote a compact for self-governance in their new land that became a seed for the American Constitution. The compact called for the creation of "just and equal laws". Justice and, above all, equality is what gay marriage is about, Ms Fitzpatrick says.

"This is saying that gays and lesbians are as equal as you are," she says, adding that no one surprised that conservatives in America are trying to get in the way. "They are afraid because they know that come Monday the train will have left the station and it's going all the way down the tracks."

Nobody, least of all Ms Fitzpatrick, is going to hide from you that the legalisation of gay marriage will be a massive economic boon for Provincetown. She used to be a cabaret performer and has high hopes of getting gigs as a wedding singer this summer. All down Commercial Street, shops are displaying signs showing support for the marriage initiative. Owners of restaurants and inns say they are booked out for wedding parties and receptions all summer.

Traditional white wedding cakes sit in the windows of the town's bakeries with two figures on top, a groom and a groom. Fashion shops show T-shirts with apt political slogans. "Marriage is a human right", proclaims one. "It is not a privilege for heterosexuals".

Ms Fitzpatrick says: "This going to become a new cottage industry for us, but it's not one that we really pursued or even expected." She says Provincetown resisted the temptation to follow the lead of San Francisco and some other towns in America, which this year began to issue marriage licences to gays almost in a spirit of civil disobedience when it was never clear that such licences would hold up to legal examination.

Monday's licences will be unimpeachable. Well, almost unimpeachable. What is true is that, barring last-minute complications, Massachusetts will be obliged to recognise the marriage licences that will be issued next week. That means giving those couples who become married all the same legal protections granted to straights who become married.

But there are complications. These marriages will still not be recognised on the federal level and President George Bush is championing an amendment to the Constitution expressly to bans gays from marrying. And inside Massachusetts, the Governor, Mitt Romney, who is a Republican, is seeking the same kind of amendment for the state constitution. The rules mean that the change cannot pass before 2006, but should that happen, what will become of the gay couples who are already married?

Of more immediate concern is an edict from Governor Romney that, come Monday, town clerks across the state should issue licences only to gays and lesbians who reside in the Massachusetts or can prove that they will shortly settle within its borders.

Provincetown, at least, has made clear that it will defy that order. In a vote taken by the five-member board of selectman early last week (four of whom are either gay or lesbian), it decided it would not ask applicants where they live. They will allow same-sex couples to marry wherever they come from.

It is a stand that has raised the political temperature several degrees. "What's next?" a spokesman for Governor Romney asked tartly. "Is Provincetown going to start marrying 10-year-olds in violation of the law? Are they going to refuse to enforce the drug laws? Will they ignore the gun laws too?"

Rob Tozner, the owner of the White Winds gay guest-house on Commercial Street and the executive director of the Provincetown Business Guild, is cutting about Governor Romney. "It's a shame he doesn't think more about the state and the people he is meant to be serving," he says. "He is taking these positions only to get national attention. He wants to go further in politics and that's all this is about."

He is similarly exasperated by the conservative argument that what is happening here is an assault on the sanctity of marriage as normally understood, between a man and a woman. Heterosexuals, he says, have little to teach gays about honouring marriage. "They have Britney Spears who gets married for 55 hours before looking for a divorce."

He suggests that many of those who will come to marry next week will be couples who have been together for many years. Two friends of his, also in the guest-house business, expect to tie the knot next weekend. They have been in their relationship for 28 years.

The consequences for officials of disobeying the Governor could be severe. He has threatened town clerks who give licences to out-of-state gays with fines of $1,000 and even one-year prison sentences. But more fundamental is the question of what will happen when those couples return home to New York, or Minnesota or Hawaii. Legal experts predict a torrent of lawsuits will be let loose as those couples demand their Massachusetts-issued licences are recognised where they live.

What does worry Mr Tozner slightly is what the media will make of what he admits is likely to become a "circus" on Monday. "We do have people here who like to express themselves," he says, predicting that aside from the aged gentleman who almost daily sings to passers-by outside the town hall dressed in a frock, an assortment of other characters, including some colourful drag queens, may make a show of themselves. "That could be misunderstood and misinterpreted around the country, I know."

His concern is probably well placed. A producer for a network television broadcast was delighted last week when she spotted a flyer for a gay party scheduled for last night that promised to give viewers a glimpse of the more flamboyant side of gay life. With a picture of a bare-chested man, it advertised a 'Last Fling' night at the Paramount Club here. The subtext is "have some naughty fun before exchanging your vows".

Mr Pozner says: "It happens all the time. At gay parades you will have people representing serious organisations concerned with human rights, then someone a bit more colourful (usually semi-naked, perhaps in leather) marching behind. and that's who the cameras will show."

And it won't be long before visiting correspondents track down Dixie, the manager of the Post Office Café here - one of Provincetown's more venerable gay institutions - and sometime drag queen and performer. Real name David Federico, 49, Dixie has his own, somewhat eccentric, idea for playing a part in the gay marriage bonanza. He thought it would be fun to do some of the marrying himself. He was not a justice of the peace, the only other people allowed to officiate, nor was he a priest. But he is now.

Last December, Dixie discovered that it is possible to become ordained online. Surfing the internet, he found an outfit called "World Christianship Ministries", who, in exchange for 80 of Dixie's dollars and some answers filled out on a form, gave him a plastic laminate card that declares him a reverend. He is awaiting final approval from state officials, but in theory within a few more weeks he will be able to join Ms Hayder in offering himself to conduct gay weddings.

Dixie says his services will be needed since the Unitarian Universalists are the only established church willing to conduct services. There will be no help from his own Catholic Church. "They love us, but they hate the sin."

He has not decided yet how much he will charge for each service or where he will hold them. He had toyed with doing weddings in a hot-air balloon until a friend pointed out that the hook of Cape Cod is less than a mile wide and "they would wind up being married, but in Nova Scotia as well".