On October 1, 1989, long before gay marriage had even shown up on the American cultural radar, Denmark became the first nation in the world to offer same-sex couples the rights and obligations of marriage.

It was a fundamental turning point in the global fight for gay equality, and I was there reporting.

Eleven couples got hitched that day at Copenhagen Town Hall. Vice Mayor Tom Ahlberg conducted the ceremonies.

The media focus centered on pioneering activist Axel Axgil, 74, and his partner Eigil Axgil, 67. Axel founded Denmark's first gay-rights group in 1948.

"We just never could have dreamed we would get this far," Eigil told me right before tying the knot. Asked if he had any advice for gays in other countries, Eigil urged: "Be open. Come out. Keep fighting. This is the only way to move anything. If everyone comes out of the closet then this will happen everywhere."

He was right. Eighteen years later, at least 19 other countries and several U.S. states have gay-partnership laws. In addition, ordinary marriage is open to gay couples in Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands, South Africa, Spain, and Massachusetts.

That day in Denmark, after all the vows were exchanged, the couples descended the town hall steps into a hundreds-strong throng of well-wishers flinging rice and confetti. Champagne flowed freely as the Danes exclaimed, "Skål."

I was so busy taking pictures and dealing with a translator that I didn't get emotional until the next morning, when I saw Axel and Eigil on the front pages of the papers.

A bit later, when I picked up my own pictures from the photo shop, it finally hit me that I'd stood in a city hall, just 20 years after Stonewall, and watched gay couples be legally united.

As I walked to overnight the prints to the papers I write for (you didn't file by e-mail back then), a tear ran down my cheek, quickly evaporating in the autumn air. Real reporters don't cry at work.

A few days later, I wrote an opinion column predicting we'd see gay-partnership laws in the U.S. It said: "Don't think Denmark is another planet. It is your basic bourgeois, industrialized, expensive, angst-ridden, modern social-democratic state. Not so different from the U.S.—just a little more socialized, a little wealthier, a little mellower."

The column urged readers to come out to their bosses, grandmas, barbers, uncles, and strangers on the subway.

"Forty years ago," it said, "before there were any gay newspapers to bitch at you, Axel and Eigil did what you, for some unknown reason, are still afraid to do: 'Be open. Come out. Keep fighting. This is the only way to move anything. If everyone comes out of the closet then this will happen everywhere.'"

Eigil Axgil died in 1995.

Rex Wockner has reported news for the gay press since 1985. His work has appeared in more than 325 gay publications in 37 countries.