The U.S. Military Academy's Cadet Chapel at West Point hosted its first same-sex marriage Saturday
Penelope Gnesin and Brenda Sue Fulton, a West Point graduate, exchanged vows in the regal church in a ceremony conducted by a senior Army chaplain.
The ceremony comes a little more than a year after President Obama ended the military policy banning openly gay people from serving.
The two have been together for 17 years. They had a civil commitment ceremony that didn't carry any legal force in 1999 but had longed hoped to formally tie the knot.
The brides both live in New Jersey and would have preferred to have the wedding there, but the state doesn't allow gay marriage.
"We just couldn't wait any longer," Fulton said.
Guests at the wedding posted photos on Twitter while it was underway and afterward. Fulton said Cadet Chapel on the campus at West Point was a fitting venue.
"It has a tremendous history, and it is beautiful. That's where I first heard and said the cadet prayer," Fulton said.
Fulton said that when she requested the West Point chapel, she was told that none of the chaplains who preside their come from a denomination that allowed them to celebrate a gay marriage. Their marriage was officiated by a friend, Army Chaplain Col Wesley Smith of Dover Air Force Base.
Fulton, a veteran and the communications director of an organization called Outserve - which represents actively serving gay, lesbian and bisexual military personnel - confirmed in an e-mail to USA TODAY Friday night: "We will be the first same sex couple to wed at the Cadet Chapel at West Point."
The wedding was the second gay marriage West Point has hosted. The first was a small, private ceremony last weekend between two of Fulton's friends in a smaller venue on the campus.
In September 2011, the Pentagon issued guidance stating that "determinations regarding the use of DOD real property and facilities for private functions, including religious and other ceremonies, should be made on a sexual-orientation neutral basis, provided such use is not prohibited by applicable state and local laws."
The policy change came with the caveat that the use of a military facility does not constitute an endorsement of gay marriage by the Defense Department.
In July 2011, President Obama named Fulton to the West Point Board of Visitors, making her the first openly gay member of the board that advises the Academy.
She graduated from West Point in 1980, part of the first class of cadets that included women, and later founded an organization called KnightsOut, which describes itself as "an organization of West Point Alumni, Staff and Faculty who are united in supporting the rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender soldiers to openly serve their country."
Fulton, 53, said she is getting married at the academy because "West Point has been an important part of my life," but also because Gov. Chris Christie in her home state of New Jersey vetoed a gay marriage bill earlier this year.
"We had always said that we wanted to get married in New Jersey," Fulton told USA Today, but "we didn't want to wait any longer," particularly because Gnesim, 52, is a breast cancer survivor and suffers from multiple sclerosis.
"It is wonderful for us to celebrate the recognition that New York state will give our marriage," Fulton said, but "there is also some regret that we can't get married in our home state."
In September, Obama issued a statement commemorating the one-year anniversary of the repeal of "Don't ask, don't tell," the military policy that banned openly gay soldiers from serving. He said, "Gay and lesbian Americans now no longer need to hide who they love in order to serve the country they love."
But the 1996 Defense Of Marriage Act still prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages and says that states cannot be forced to recognize them.
New York's legislature approved gay marriage in June 2011, and in October, a federal appeals court in the state ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional.
Contributing: Associated Press