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 and Eric McCormack. 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.
Hundreds of spirited marchers were escorted by the California Highway Patrol along a narrow highway to Fresno, a city of more than 450,000 and the largest in the agricultural San Joaquin Valley. Atop City Hall there was a massive rainbow flag on loan from San Francisco's Castro District, the nexus of the city's gay and lesbian community.
Several thousand people gathered for a festive, boisterous event, some wearing wedding dresses or carrying rainbow flags, a symbol of support for gay rights.
McCormack, an actor who portrayed a gay man on the TV series "Will & Grace" for eight seasons, said he wanted to ask people who oppose gay marriage how it hurts them.
"The gays aren't going to break marriage," he told the crowd. "Think about it: They're gay. They'll probably spruce it up and make it a little nicer."
Cassandra Zamora, 17, said she was overwhelmed with emotion at seeing so many gay marriage supporters in her conservative city.
"Usually you really don't see a lot of gay people here. Our parents or our environment don't let us do anything in Fresno," said Zamora, who called Saturday her "coming out party" for her father. "It's like, 'Guess what Papi? I'm out."'
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.