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California gay marriage opponents gear up for rallies

world Updated: May 31, 2009 21:15 IST

AP
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Hundreds of gay marriage supporters marched in rural, conservative California, but before the dusty roads could clear, opponents of same-sex couples planned to take to the streets to renew their resolve.

The outfits that helped persuade voters to ban gay marriage in the state Constitution in November will on Sunday celebrate weddings between men and women at Fresno City Hall, while nearly a dozen religious and social conservative groups planned a similar rally in San Diego.

Just a day earlier, gay marriage advocates marched along dusty roads, saying they wouldn’t be dissuaded the state Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Proposition 8, which enshrined the ban on gay marriage in the state Constitution.

The gay marriage supporters pledge to put a new initiative before voters to overturn the ban - perhaps as soon as next year - and to take their message to Washington in October.

But there were skeptical residents, some of whom showed up on Saturday just to see what all the commotion was about.

Tom Johnson, 57, a disabled Vietnam veteran from Clovis, a Fresno suburb, said voters already made their choice.

“I’m against people coming into our community with those viewpoints. I just can’t accept it,” Johnson said. “People already voted yes on Prop. 8. That’s the law and we should follow it.”

The event attracted veteran activists and celebrities, including Academy Award-winning actress Charlize Theron and Eric McCormack. It was organised by a lesbian mother in Fresno who was removed from the parent-teacher association at her son’s Catholic school after she spoke out against banning same-sex weddings.

“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 organiser 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, California, the self-proclaimed raisin capital of the world.

Hundreds of spirited marchers were escorted by the California Highway Patrol along an aging highway to Fresno, a city of more than 450,000 and the largest in the agricultural San Joaquin Valley. On the lawn adjacent to City Hall, organizers flew a massive rainbow flag on loan from San Francisco’s Castro District, the nexus of the city’s gay and lesbian community.

Some wore wedding dresses or carried rainbow flags, a symbol of support for gay rights.

Many gay activists now 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 per cent of the vote in Fresno County, compared to 52 per cent statewide.

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

The campaign’s next phase will train thousands of volunteers and faith leaders to canvass door-to-door to talk about the issue with neighbors, said Rick Jacobs, chair of the Courage Campaign. Representatives from all 50 states will march on Washington on October 11 to coincide with National Coming Out Day, Jacobs said.

“We’re not doing what we used to do, which is meet in West Hollywood,” Jacobs said. “We want people from all 435 congressional districts to tell their stories in Washington.”