HONOLULU — Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed a bill Wednesday legalizing gay marriage in the state that kicked off a national discussion of the issue more than two decades ago.

Now, the island chain is positioning itself for a bump in tourism as people take advantage of the new law and the state provides another example of how differently marriage is viewed in the nation.

“In Hawaii, we believe in fairness, justice and human equality,” Abercrombie said Tuesday after the state Senate passed the gay marriage bill. “Today, we celebrate our diversity defining us rather than dividing us.”

Hawaii’s gay marriage debate began in 1990 when two women applied for a marriage license, leading to a court battle and a 1993 Hawaii Supreme Court decision that said their rights to equal protection were violated by not letting them marry.

That helped lead Congress to pass the federal Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, part of which was struck down earlier this year by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The decision led Abercrombie to call a special session that produced Hawaii’s gay marriage law.

Abercrombie signed the measure at an invitation-only ceremony at the Hawaii Convention Center near Waikiki.

The law allows gay couples living in Hawaii and tourists to marry in the state starting Dec. 2. Another 14 states and the District of Columbia already allow same-sex marriage. A bill is awaiting the governor’s signature in Illinois.

President Obama praised passage of the Hawaii bill, saying the affirmation of freedom and equality makes the country stronger.

Senators passed the measure 19-4 with two lawmakers excused.

An estimate from a University of Hawaii researcher says gay marriage will boost tourism by $217 million over three years.