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Embracing a long-sought liberation; Gay couples await moment when being wed within law expands the horizons of life

Longtime partners Madeline D. Davis and Wendy B. Smiley plan to get married next month.

For the fifth time.

They've been together for 17 years, and have had a religious wedding ceremony in Buffalo, a pagan ceremony in Cherry Creek, a civil union in Vermont and a legal wedding in Ontario.

"We have called ourselves wives for quite a long time," Davis said Monday.

But late in July, during the first week of New York's new gay marriage law, Davis and Smiley plan to have either a real wedding or a reconfirmation ceremony here when Smiley's family comes to town.

New York has made its own commitment, to gay couples who want a real marriage sanctioned by the state.

"The two of us were watching it [Friday night], and we wept," said Davis, director of the local gay and lesbian archives that bear her name.

Gay marriage is coming to New York, and in the wild scramble after Friday night's historic vote in the State Senate, gay activists are brainstorming the possibilities -- not only what it means for homosexual couples, but what it can mean for the local gay community, the City of Buffalo and maybe even Niagara Falls.

Will there be a mass marriage ceremony in Buffalo? Will the city become a popular wedding site for gay couples all over the Midwest? Could Niagara Falls knock some rust off its old reputation as one of the nation's wedding and honeymoon capitals?

"Somebody really smart should develop a Western New York gay marriage package," said Kitty S. Lambert, president of OUTspoken for Equality, referring to the region's many cultural, artistic and sightseeing jewels.

Lambert challenged anyone to come up with any negative consequences of the gay marriage law for Western New York -- and its economy:

Too many wedding cakes being sold here? she asked sarcastically. Too many hotel rooms being booked? And "entirely too much money pouring into Western New York?"

"There aren't any negative repercussions," she added.

Monday, gay activists started discussing the many possibilities, punctuated by a Monday night meeting of the local Stonewall Democrats.

Gay activists envision travel packages that could offer tours of Buffalo's art galleries and architectural gems coupled with a visit to Niagara Falls. Western New York also can offer its prime location, inexpensive prices and its moderate summer weather.

"I think we have the potential to draw people from other cities, especially being a Midwest blue-collar town, and it's easy to get here," said Carol D. Speser, founder of Rainbow Spirit Rising. "I think people from all over the country will fly here."

Certainly, New York City also could benefit, but Buffalo is a day's drive from much of the Midwest, and its cheaper prices and less frantic pace could draw those who are reluctant to choose the Big Apple as a wedding site.

Lambert, who grew up in Arizona, remembered her childhood fantasies of getting married in Niagara Falls.

"It used to be the honeymoon capital of the world," she said. "I'd like to see it become that again."

Speser thinks the new gay marriage law could help attract more gay people to live here, or at least help keep people from moving away.

"It's an artsy place that draws people," Speser said of Buffalo. "A lot of people who move here by accident love it. This could be another way to draw people here. If Buffalo and Erie County were smart, they would reach out to people who want to move here, get married and pay taxes."

Even if that doesn't happen, the new law could make the state -- and Buffalo Niagara -- more inviting to those, especially in their 20s and 30s, who have been moving away in droves.

"It's a family town," Speser said. "Our families don't want us to move. This could be another factor in people wanting to stay here."

Gay and lesbian activists still are trying to determine whether there's support for some kind of mass marriage ceremony, as has occurred in other places where gay marriage has become law.

"Would I do a mass ceremony?" asked Speser, a Jewish chaplain. "Absolutely. But I'd like to get clergy from other denominations, too."

Many gay couples have had multiple commitment or religious ceremonies. Davis and Smiley have considered themselves married since 1995, when they had a large ceremony in Temple Beth Zion.

"Although it wasn't legal, it was a spiritual and religious ceremony, and it meant a great deal to us, to be married, as I call it, in the house of the Lord," Davis said.

Besides the huge symbolic effect of a state-sanctioned marriage, Davis talked about the legal issues.

"Gay couples in New York State have had to go through a great deal of machinations to get one right after another," she said.

Lambert and her partner, Cheryle L. Rudd, have been together for 12 years, and Lambert estimated that they've been involved in seven such ceremonies, including one day in Maui when they were married on a black sand beach at dawn and a white sand beach on the opposite side of the island at sunset.

And yet a state-sanctioned ceremony means everything to them.

"Without a sanction by the state, it's nothing," Lambert said. "It's kind of like we just live together. That $40 piece of paper is paramount to the safety of our family."

Lambert and Rudd have had several health crises each.

"We have considered ourselves married always," Lambert said. "We always thought God protected our relationship."

But they don't plan on waiting long. The new law is expected to take effect July 24, experts said Monday.

"We are planning on getting married the moment it is legal," Lambert said. "I promised her we would not wait a day longer than is necessary."