Same-sex marriage backers rally

March to Fresno seeks support of conservatives

FRESNO, Calif. – Aiming to reach out to conservative voters, about 3,000 gay-rights supporters gathered in California’s Central Valley on Saturday 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 marriage, activists launched a 14.5-mile march from the town of Selma to Fresno, where they rallied in front of City Hall as a peaceful campaign-style event to win back marriage rights.

They staged the march in California’s heartland to prominently demonstrate in a socially conservative region.

“This is a revitalization,” said Beverly Sankowski, 51. The point of the rally, marked by lively chants and rainbow flags, was to say this: “We want to get to know you, and we want you to get to know us … and alleviate some fears” about gays and lesbians, she said.

Last week, the state’s highest court upheld Proposition 8, a state ballot measure that changed the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage and was 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 summit today in Fresno to plot out the next steps in their campaign for marriage equality. Among other things, activists could seek to put the issue on the ballot next year. They are also planning a Washington, D.C., march in the fall.

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 the campaign.

By trekking to this conservative city, they said, they wanted to make a public display of 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 her 6-year-old son, Sebastian, was kicked out of his Catholic school last fall 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 it was clear their work would not go unchallenged.

On Friday afternoon, the Protect Marriage committee, which organized the Yes on 8 campaign, announced what amounted to a counterprotest 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 prominent Central Valley church leader who organized thousands of parishioners to campaign for Proposition 8.

Franklin said he welcomed the protesters to Fresno but said the event would do little to change voters’ minds.

“If you look at the last election, we’re 70-percent-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.”

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