BOSTON (Reuters) - The expansion of legal gay marriage across New England could deliver an economic windfall by attracting a youthful "creative class" of workers to a region with an aging population.
In the past year, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine have joined Massachusetts, which in 2004 became the first U.S. state to allow same-sex weddings, in blessing gay and lesbian weddings.
That makes the region the first in the United States where same-sex couples can move from one state to another while retaining marriage benefits.
New arrivals include John Visser and Nick Keffer, who recently moved to Hartford, Connecticut, from Raleigh, North Carolina. They plan to wed later this month.
"The sole, only reason why we moved was because it was now legal for us to get married here," said Visser, 42. "No other reason whatsoever other than marriage equality. We were perfectly happy in North Carolina."
New England has long burnished an image of tolerance. Early European settlers in the 17th-century escaped religious persecution, although they imposed their own stern doctrines and sometimes expelled dissenters. Later, the region led the right for the abolition of black slavery.
Five out of the region's six states now endorse gay weddings after New Hampshire legalized same-sex marriage on Wednesday, leaving Rhode Island as the sole holdout.
The spread of gay marriage could serve as a recruiting tool for universities, health care companies and financial services firms that dominate the region's economy, experts said.
"It will be a selling point when it comes to trying to lure people with same-sex partners who are being wooed for a job," said M.V. Lee Badgett, a University of Massachusetts economist who studies gay and lesbian issues.
Same-sex couples in the so-called "creative class" were 2.5 times more likely to move to Massachusetts in the three years following the approval of same-sex marriage than they had been in the three prior years, according to a study released in May by the Williams Institute of the University of California.
That study also found that migrants relocating to the state were more likely to be younger and female than before same-sex marriage was approved.
Research shows that heterosexual members of the "creative class" -- a group that includes financial whizzes, software programmers and educators -- tend to regard states that allow gay marriages as more appealing places to live.
"It broadly suggests you have an environment in which people who are seen as different are accepted," said Gary Gates, the UCLA demographer who was the study's lead author.
Outside New England, the only other U.S. state to allow gay marriage is Iowa. California for six months last year allowed same-sex weddings before voters put an end to the practice.
The first economic effect Massachusetts felt from gay marriage was a boost in business related to actual wedding ceremonies performed over the past five years.
The 12,167 same-sex couples that have wed and their guests have spent about $111 million on weddings, from flowers and cakes to hotel rooms and meals for out-of-state guests, another Williams Institute study found.
Over the longer term, there could be a greater economic effect if gay couples decide they are unwilling to leave the region to move to states where their marriages would not be recognized. Forty-two of the 50 U.S. states have laws on their books prohibiting same-sex marriages.
"Once these states offer marriage to these families, they will not quickly, willingly or easily accept new assignments, transfers and promotions to states that don't offer them," said Bob Witeck, chief executive of Witeck-Combs Communications, a Washington-based marketing firm that focuses on gay and lesbian issues. "They're creating an economic wall in the region that is going to impact the ability of all national employers to move talent around."
Some married gay people said they would not consider moving to a state where their marriage would not be recognized.
"I just wouldn't do it. It's pretty straightforward," said Mike Swartz, 41, a vice president at a software company who lives with his husband in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Some couples said another key factor influencing where they would move is how states recognize their role as parents.
Marie Longo, 45, moved to Massachusetts before the state allowed gay marriage because its laws allowed her now-wife Allison to adopt Longo's twin daughters.
"Portability is a big issue for those of us now who have lived in a state where we have been legally married and respected and treated just like any other couple," said Longo, who works as a fund-raiser for Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, a group that lobbies for gay marriage.
Knowing they could move from state to state and still have their marriage recognized made it easier for Visser, an interior designer, and Keffer, a real estate agent, to start a new life in the north, Visser said.
"Connecticut is a very small state," Visser said. "Hartford is the center and it only takes an hour to get to the state border in any direction, so for us to be able to establish ourselves in the surrounding states, it broadens our opportunities. We feel less restriction."
New England has a graying population, particularly in Maine where 14.7 percent of the population is 65 or older, compared to 12.5 percent for the nation as a whole, according to U.S. Census data. Economists and academics say this will take a toll on the region's economy, both by limiting innovation and growing the demand for government services.
Editing by Alan Elsner and Jason Szep