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15 countries have now legalized gay marriage and another three allow it in some areas.
Gay couples across England and Wales said "I do" Saturday as a law authorizing same-sex marriage came into effect at midnight, the final stage in a long fight for equality.
Following the first marriages amid a supposed race to wed, Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted: "Congratulations to all same-sex couples getting married today — I wish you every possible happiness for the future."
The Conservative party leader also described the change as an "important moment for our country," and a rainbow flag flew above government offices in London in celebration.
While 15 countries have legalized gay marriage and another three allow it in some areas, homosexuals remain persecuted in many parts of the world.
The Church of England, insisting weddings should take place only between a man and a woman, secured an exemption from the new law.
In London, John Coffey, 52, and Bernardo Marti, 48, exchanged vows as the clock struck midnight, before being pronounced "husband and husband."
They were among several couples bidding to be first to take advantage of last year's Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act.
In Brighton on England's south coast, Neil Allard and Andrew Wale exchanged vows and rings in the opulent splendor of the Royal Pavilion in front of about 100 guests.
Wearing velvet-collared three-piece suits with white flowers in their buttonholes, the smiling couple of seven years hugged and kissed after sealing their marriage.
"We are very happy this day has come finally. It's very exciting," said Wale, a 49-year-old theater director.
Campaigners have insisted that only the right to marry gives them full equality with heterosexual couples.
Civil partnerships have been legal since 2005 and marriage brings no new rights — the ability to adopt, for example, was introduced in 2002.
"We didn't want to get married until it was a marriage that my mum and dad could have," said Teresa Millward, 37, who was marrying her long-term girlfriend on Saturday.
The gay marriage law is the final victory in a long battle stretching back to the decriminalization of homosexuality in England in 1967.
Cameron backed the change despite strong opposition from members of his party and the Church of England, which has rejected the idea that clergy be allowed to bless couples in same-sex marriages.
But Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the leader of the world's 80 million Anglicans, said the Church had accepted the new law and would continue to demonstrate "the love of Christ for every human being."
A poll for BBC radio said 20 percent of British adults would turn down an invitation to a same-sex wedding.
However, the survey also found 68 percent agreed gay marriage should be permitted, with 26 percent opposing it.
Peter McGraith and David Cabreza, who have been together for 17 years, also married shortly after midnight in front of friends and their two adopted sons in London.
They hope their wedding will send out a message to places like Nigeria, Uganda and Russia where the idea of gay marriage is a distant dream.
"There's a lot of gay men and lesbians around the world who are not invited to the party," McGraith, a clothing designer, told AFP ahead of the big day.
Same-sex couples who were married abroad are now recognised under the new law, although not everywhere in the United Kingdom.
Scotland, which has devolved powers, is expected to introduce gay marriage later this year, while the British-controlled province of Northern Ireland remains deeply divided on the issue and has no plans to change the law there.