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PROVIDENCE, R.I. –  Rhode Island on Thursday became the nation’s 10th state to allow gay and lesbian couples to wed, as a 16-year effort to extend marriage rights in this heavily Catholic state ended with the triumphant cheers of hundreds of gays, lesbians, their families and friends.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee signed the bill into law on the Statehouse steps Thursday evening following a final 56-15 vote in the House. The first weddings will take place Aug. 1, when the law takes effect.

“It’s a day we knew would come, but it seemed so far away for so many years,” said Rep. Frank Ferri, D-Warwick, who is gay and was elected to the House after years as a gay marriage advocate. “So many people worked so hard for this day.”

The day was bittersweet for Deborah Tevyaw, whose wife, state corrections officer Pat Baker, succumbed to lung cancer two years ago. Months before she died, Baker, relying on an oxygen tank, angrily told lawmakers that it was unfair that Tevyaw wasn’t considered her wife in Rhode Island despite their marriage in Massachusetts.

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