Gay weddings begin in New Zealand, including one at 39,000 feet

Gay marriage was legalized in New Zealand in April, and the law took effect Monday. One high-profile and high-altitude wedding took place on a plane, with witness Jesse Tyler Ferguson.

Greg Bowker/New Zealand Herald/AP
Melissa Ray (r.) and Natasha Wall got married on Monday, Aug. 19. They were one of the first gay couples to marry in New Zealand. Monday marked the first day that same-sex couples could marry in New Zealand after politicians changed the law back in April.

When Lynley Bendall and Ally Wanikau walked down the aisle to exchange vows, the fasten-seatbelt signs were off.

The couple celebrated the legalization of gay marriage in New Zealand by getting hitched in a plane at 39,000 feet (11,900 meters). Along for the ride was Jesse Tyler Ferguson, star of the American TV sitcom "Modern Family."

Instead of soda and peanuts, the flight attendants served champagne and canapes.

Monday was the first day same-sex couples could marry in New Zealand, where the law was changed in April. Officials said about three dozen same-sex couples planned to marry.

Bendall and Wanikau were flying high after winning a promotion by national carrier Air New Zealand. Their winning video featured their three young foster children holding handwritten signs saying why their parents should get married on a plane, including one that read "Wow!! Imagine that for news at school!!!"

Bendall said the law change is "huge" for New Zealand: "We're so proud."

She and Wanikau have been together 13 years. They are both childcare workers and met through work.

The newly wed Ferguson, whose husband Justin Mikita was also on the flight, said he hoped to help shine the spotlight on New Zealand's law change.

"So I'm very happy to come out here with my husband to bring some attention to this great day," said Ferguson, who was married in New York City last month.

Ferguson said that with gay marriage not legally recognized in 37 U.S. states, there is plenty of work to do there to change attitudes. He said television comedy is a great way to help normalize gay relationships.

"We really sneak into a lot of living rooms with no agenda," he said. People "start loving this gay couple on television, and they say, 'I love Cam and Mitch,' and so what's so different with Bob and Joe down the street?"

Ferguson said he faced discrimination growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

"It was very difficult. I was name-called a lot, I had to move schools a few times because I was bullied," he said. "A lot of those people who bullied me are now very jealous of my career, and have tried to connect with me on Facebook. And, of course, I'm a very forgiving person, but, you know, I don't totally forget."

Asked what he thought about leaving on the flight from a place called Queenstown, Ferguson laughed, saying he thought it was "very appropriate," and adding that "It hasn't gone unnoticed."

After the charter flight landed in Auckland, the plane was towed to a hangar for a reception with live music and a rainbow-colored wedding cake.

Celebrant Kim Jewel Elliott had twice before united the couple — first in 2001 in a commitment ceremony and then in 2009 in a civil union.

"I feel so happy," Elliott said. "Injustices still happen and there are still things to fight for. But this is a real day of joy."

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