Hundreds march for gay marriage in central California

2 Jun 2009

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) -- Hundreds of same-sex couples marched Saturday through dusty California farm towns, gathering in the state's conservative center to push for gay marriage in less receptive areas.

Just days after the state's highest court upheld a ban on gay marriage, advocates vowed to win the hearts and minds of those who reject their unions. They are pledging to put a new initiative before voters to overturn the ban, perhaps as soon as next year.

The weekend-long event has attracted the movement's most well-known activists and celebrities including Charlize Theron. It was organized by a lesbian mother in Fresno who was removed from the parent-teacher association at her son's Roman Catholic school after she spoke out against banning gay marriage.

"Fresno represents middle America values, and we can start changing our neighbors' feelings about gay marriage beginning right here in the Central Valley," said lead organizer Robin McGehee, a 36-year-old college professor who married her longtime partner last year. "We're doing exactly what the freedom riders would do in the South in the 1960s, which is reaching into communities that are different from us so we can all live in equality."

Paying homage to the 1965 marches in Selma, Ala., that marked the peak of the civil rights movement, the "Meet in the Middle 4 Equality" protest began Saturday morning in Selma, Calif., the self-proclaimed raisin capital of the world. It then moved to Freso.

Gay marriage opponents also planned to mobilize this weekend to renew resolve within the broad-based coalition that in November successfully persuaded California voters to pass Proposition 8, which enshrined the ban on gay marriage in the state Constitution. The state Supreme Court upheld the ban last Tuesday.

On Sunday, Fresno's former mayor and a conservative Christian pastor planned to preside over a celebration of heterosexual marriage a nearly a dozen religious and social conservative groups planned a similar event in San Diego.

At midday Saturday, hundreds of spirited pro-gay marriage marchers were escorted by the California Highway Patrol along a narrow highway to Fresno, the largest city in the agricultural San Joaquin Valley. They would be greeted by a massive rainbow flag flying above City Hall -- a loan from San Francisco's Castro District, the nexus of the city's gay and lesbian community.

"We aren't here to impose our beliefs on anyone. We are here to begin a dialogue on civil rights," said Cleve Jones, a veteran activist and protege of Harvey Milk, San Francisco's first openly gay leader who was slain in 1978. "We can't win unless we open up our hearts to connecting with people who appear to be very different from us."

Gay activists believe their campaign against Proposition 8 focused too much on liberal urban enclaves along the coast, failing even to reach out to the state's rural regions. The measure passed with nearly 69 percent of the vote in Fresno County, compared to 52 percent statewide.

Article taken from The Associated Press.