Thousands rally in California’s heartland in support of gay marriage

Chip Garcia-Coakley, with a rainbow flag in hand, joins other gay rights supporters.
(Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times)

Aiming to reach out to conservative voters, about 3,000 gay-rights supporters gathered Saturday in California’s Central Valley in a renewed campaign to win support for same-sex marriage.

Just days after the California Supreme Court upheld a voter-approved ban on same-sex marriages, activists launched a 14 1/2 -mile march from the town of Selma to Fresno, where they rallied in front of City Hall as a peaceful campaign-styled event to win back marriage rights.

They staged the march in California’s heartland to prominently demonstrate in a socially conservative region. Also, they wanted to pay “symbolic respect” to 1960s civil rights marches in places like Selma, Ala.

“This is a revitalization,” said Beverly Sankowski, 51.

She said the point of the rally, marked by lively chants and rainbow flags, was to say: “We want to get to know you and we want you to get to know us . . . and alleviate some fears” about gays and lesbians.

Last week, the state’s highest court upheld Proposition 8, a state ballot measure that restored the ban on same-sex marriage approved by voters in November. The court ruled that the marriages of an estimated 18,000 couples who wed before November were legal, but that subsequent unions were subject to the ban.

Labor, religious and civil rights activists planned to follow the march with a meeting today in Fresno to plot the next steps in their campaign for marriage equality. Among other things, activists could seek to put the issue back on the ballot next year. They also are planning a march this fall in Washington, D.C.

Swaying voters in places like Fresno, which backed Proposition 8 by more than 2 to 1, will be crucial to their efforts. Activists said they made a mistake by not focusing more on social conservatives during their No on Proposition 8 campaign. By trekking to this conservative city, they said, they wanted to publicly display their commitment to reach out to voters of all stripes.

“You’ve got to figure out what works in Fresno” in order to win a gay marriage election in California, said Robin McGeHee, a lesbian who lives in Fresno and organized the rally, paying for many of the costs herself. She said she did so after she was forced off the PTA and pulled her son, Sebastian, 6, out of his Catholic school. The priest was upset, she said, because she spoke out in favor of gay marriage.

McGeHee broke into tears as she described how her son promised to be “really good” if he could just go back to school.

“A community that would allow that to happen . . . needs to know that real people are hurt” by this issue, she said.

But even as the activists road-tripped from San Francisco and Los Angeles into the heat of the Central Valley, it became clear that their work would not go unchallenged.

On Friday afternoon, the Protect Marriage Coalition, which organized the Yes on 8 campaign, announced what amounted to a counter-protest -- a “Celebration of Marriage,” to be held today in Fresno and San Diego. Featured speakers were slated to include movie actor Alan Autry, Fresno’s former mayor; along with Pastor Jim Franklin, a Central Valley church leader who organized thousands of parishioners to campaign for Proposition 8.

Franklin said he welcomed the demonstrators to Fresno, but said that the event would do little to change voters’ minds. “If you look at the last election, we’re 70%-plus that voted for Proposition 8. Just having a rally, to think that is going to . . . change deep-rooted feelings about the definition of marriage, that’s a little naive,” he said.

Some on the streets of Fresno’s sleepy downtown Saturday affirmed that view.

One man, a 60-year-old Fresno resident, said his neighbors -- a lesbian couple and their two children -- “would do anything for us, and we would do anything for them.”

But the man said he believed that marriage was between a man and a woman. In the voting booth, he said, he thought about his neighbors and left the box blank. He would not give his name because he didn’t want them to know how he voted.

Some African American gay activists were troubled by Saturday’s march from Selma to Fresno. They suggested that organizers appeared to be trying to borrow symbolism of the civil rights movement -- the 1965 marches from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery were indelible events -- while ignoring the fact that gay activists do not suffer the same kind of oppression that blacks did in 1960s Alabama.

“One needs to be careful about appearing to appropriate the symbols of the civil rights movement without fully acknowledging the significant differences as well as the similarities between the movements,” said Ron Buckmire, a gay activist who is black.

When gay rights organizers meet today, they hope to unite in the wake of anger and finger-pointing after Proposition 8’s passage.

Many said they found the rally to be a restorative event.

The speakers included Cleve Jones, who worked with the assassinated San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and brought his famous megaphone to the rally, and Eric McCormack, who is straight but played a gay lawyer in the TV sitcom “Will & Grace.”

McCormack said he came in part because his character was the first gay person that many Americans accepted into their homes. “I’m here to talk to those people who voted yes on 8. How does it hurt you to see them at the altar?” he said.

Fresno police said the rally was peaceful, with no arrests or incidents.

Times staff writer Teresa Watanabe contributed to this report from Los Angeles.

Activists irked at amendment’s ease They say Prop. 8 ruling shows it is too easy to alter the state Constitution. A35