Forget Pride marches and kiss-ins. That backbone of conservative society -“ legal marriage -“ has become the latest and greatest act of international gay and lesbian civil disobedience.

Gay and lesbian marriage made world-wide headlines on the weekend. In California, renegade San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom gave out marriage licences to same-sex couples, while in Melbourne, 300 couples attempted a new world record for the largest commitment ceremony ever held.

In San Francisco, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, who recently celebrated their 51st anniversary together, were the first couple to be issued with a licence and marry. They were chosen to be the first because of their decades of activism. By the end of business hours on Tuesday, more than 2,600 marriages had been performed.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Mayor Newsom decided to go ahead and issue marriage licences after hearing President George Bush denounce same-sex relationships in January.

Denying same-sex couples the right to marry, Newsom determined, was outlawed by the Californian constitution.

Two conservative groups took court action to try and stop the issuing of licences. In the first action, commenced by the Legal Defense Fund, Judge James Warren ruled that the city could keep issuing licences until the next hearing on 29 March.

The second case was commenced by Campaign for California Families. Judge Ronald Quidachy postponed the hearing until Friday 20 February.

Newsom issued a press release on Tuesday stating the city would continue to issue licences.

We are in full compliance with our state’s equal protection clause prohibiting discrimination in any form, he said.

San Francisco is a city of tolerance and mutual respect and we will accept nothing less than full civil rights for all our residents.

The marriages coincided with government debate in Massachusetts about whether or not to amend the constitution to define marriage as existing only between a man and a woman. In November 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled its state constitution permitted same-sex marriages. The court decision effectively legalised gay and lesbian marriage in that state.

The Massachusetts lawmakers were unable to agree whether or not to adopt the proposed constitutional changes, and postponed further debates until Thursday 11 March.

Meantime, a mass-commitment ceremony was held on Sunday as part of the Melbourne Midsumma carnival. Calling it Summa Vows, the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby invited couples to pay a $10 donation to register and take part.

According to Lobby co-convenor David McCarthy, Summa Vows took 12 months to plan, and coincidentally came at the same time as the Californian marriages. Besides, he said, Summa Vows wasn’t really about marriage.

San Francisco was marriage ceremonies. This was a commitment ceremony, he said.

Everyone’s view on marriage is quite different -“ I don’t think there’s a community view on it. But on the fact that our relationships should be recognised and equal, there is a community view.

This was a demonstration that our community wants our relationships recognised.

McCarthy said the ceremony was moving, and he was amazed by the number of couples who turned up on the day.

We had no idea how many people would take part. I thought if we got 50 couples that would have been great. It was that wonderful mix of seriousness, of protest, and of commitment. During and after -“ to look out from the stage and see hundreds of couples there -“ their families were there, in a lot of cases their kids were involved. It was one of those moments that makes lobbying feel worthwhile.

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