LONDON -- Gay couples began registering for civil partnerships at town halls across Britain yesterday, as a law took effect giving them many of the same legal rights as married heterosexuals.
Although the law stops short of allowing same-sex couples to marry, many said they were still eager to claim the benefits and official recognition of their relationships, for which some have waited decades. The Times of London marked the day by publishing notices of ''gay marriages" for the first time.
''We're absolutely delighted," said John Walton, 80, who was registering in London with his partner of 40 years, Roger Raglan. ''It's enormously important to us that we should be able to state to everyone that we are partners."
The law, passed last year, permits civil ceremonies that will give same-sex couples the same social security, tax, pension, and inheritance rights as married couples. Prime Minister Tony Blair's government dropped the word ''marriage" from its legislation rather than run afoul of lawmakers.
Among the first to register yesterday were pop star Elton John and his filmmaker partner, David Furnish, whose official proclamation was posted alongside those of other impending weddings and partnerships at Maidenhead Town Hall, west of London.
After the mandatory 15-day waiting period, the couple plan a private ceremony at Windsor's 17th-century town hall.
''Sir Elton and Mr. Furnish are making a solemn and formal commitment to each other, and our Guildhall offers them dignity and privacy," said Mary-Rose Gliksten, a council leader for the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, which has jurisdiction.
Pop star George Michael has also announced that he will tie the knot with his long-term partner, Kenny Goss, sometime next year.
Up to 1,000 couples were expected to register their partnerships yesterday. In Brighton, the southern beach resort that has a strong gay community, the register office opened at 7:30 a.m. to accommodate waiting couples.
''It was wonderful," said the Rev. Debbie Gaston, a minister at Metropolitan Community Church in Brighton who plans to formalize her union with Elaine Gaston on Dec. 21. ''We were aware that it was history in the making and we were overwhelmed by it all. It's been a long time coming.
The first partnership ceremonies will be held Dec. 19 in Northern Ireland, Dec. 20 in Scotland, and Dec. 21 in England and Wales.
The Netherlands, Canada, Belgium, and Spain have legalized same-sex marriage, while Germany, France, and Switzerland have laws similar to Britain's. In the United States, only Massachusetts allows gay marriage; Vermont and Connecticut permit civil unions.
While the legislation aroused some opposition in Britain, it did not provoke a huge controversy. It caps a remarkable transformation in social attitudes that began when Victorian laws outlawing homosexuality were overturned in England and Wales in 1967.
In 2000, the government lifted a longstanding ban on gays serving in the armed forces and lowered the homosexual age of consent to 16, the same as for heterosexuals.
''Britain has been in the dark ages over this, but today we have made the first step into the 21st century," said Percy Steven, 66, registering his partnership with Roger Lockyer at Westminster Council House in central London.
''When we first started living together, we were breaking the law," he added. ''If somebody had said to me that one day gay people would be able to have their partnerships recognized, I would have said 'Yes, but not in my lifetime.' "