PORTLAND, Maine (AP) – Cecelia Burnett and Ann Swanson had already set their wedding date. When they joined about 1,000 other gay marriage supporters for an election night party in a Holiday Inn ballroom, they hoped to celebrate the vote that would make it possible.

Instead, they went home at midnight, dejected and near tears after a failed bid to make Maine the first state to approve same-sex marriage at the ballot box.

“I’m ready to start crying,” said Burnett, a 58-year-old massage therapist, walking out of the ballroom early Wednesday with Swanson at her side. “I don’t understand what the fear is, why people are so afraid of this change.

“It hurts. It hurts personally,” she said. “It’s a personal rejection of us and our relationship, and I don’t understand what the fear is.”

With 98 percent of precincts reporting, gay-marriage foes had 53 percent of the vote in a referendum that asked Maine voters whether they wanted to repeal a law allowing same-sex marriage that had passed the Legislature and was signed by Democratic Gov. John Baldacci.

“The institution of marriage has been preserved in Maine and across the nation,” said Frank Schubert, the chief organizer for Stand for Marriage Maine, which lobbied for the repeal.

For the gay rights movement, which has gained a foothold in New England, it was a stinging defeat. Gay marriage has now lost in every state – 31 in all – in which it has been put to a popular vote. Gay-rights activists had hoped to buck that trend in Maine, framing same-sex marriage as a matter of equality for all families in a campaign that used 8,000 volunteers to get out the message.

Five states have legalized gay marriage – Iowa, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Connecticut – but all did so through legislation or court rulings, not by popular vote.

Portland resident Sarah Holman said she was torn, but decided – despite her conservative upbringing – to vote in favor of letting gays marry.

“They love and they have the right to love. And we can’t tell somebody how to love,” said Holman, 26.

While the gay marriage opponents claimed victory, Jesse Connolly, campaign manager for No on 1/Protect Maine Equality, held off conceding until early Wednesday, when he issued a statement vowing to continue to press the issue.

The fight for marriage equality will continue, he told supporters at the Holiday Inn ballroom, where a buffet table included a three-tiered wedding cake – with two grooms standing side by side, two brides standing side by side and the inscription: “We all do!”

“We’re not short-timers. We’re here for the long haul and whether it’s just all night and into the morning, or it’s next week or next month or next year. We will be here. We’ll be here fighting. We’ll be working. We will regroup.”

That’s not what gay marriage opponent Chuck Schott wanted to hear. At age 71, and after other gay rights efforts in 1998, 2000 and 2005, Schott said he’s getting tired of taking his fight to the polls.

“Before the final tally last night was even in, the No on 1 warned us that we’ll have to fight the battle all over again – soon. I wish they’d take their battle to some other state, and give us a rest,” he said Wednesday.

Roman Catholic Bishop Richard Malone, who urged his followers to reject same-sex marriage, said he was grateful to people, like Schott, who voted to define marriage as between a man and a woman “as it has been understood for millennia by civilizations and religions around the world.”

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