SAN FRANCISCO - In one of the nation's largest displays of support for gay rights, tens of thousands of people in cities across the country turned out in support of same-sex marriage on Saturday, lending their voices to an issue that many gay men and lesbians consider a critical step to full equality.
The demonstrations - from a sun-splashed throng in San Francisco to a chilly crowd in Minneapolis - came 11 days after California voters narrowly passed a ballot measure, Proposition 8, that outlawed previously legal same-sex ceremonies in the state. The measure's passage has spurred protests in California and across the country, including at several Mormon temples, a reflection of that church's ardent backing of the proposition.
On Saturday, speakers painted the fight over Proposition 8 as another test of a movement that began with the riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York in 1969, survived the emergence of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, and has since made enormous strides in societal acceptance, whether in television shows or in antidiscrimination laws.
"It's not ‘Yes we can,' " said Tom Ammiano, a San Francisco city supervisor, referring to President-elect Barack Obama's campaign mantra. "It's ‘Yes we will.' "
Carrying handmade signs with slogans like "No More Mr. Nice Gay" and "Straights Against Hate," big crowds filled civic centers and streets in many cities. In New York, some 4,000 people gathered at City Hall, where speakers repeatedly called same-sex marriage "the greatest civil rights battle of our generation."
"We are not going to rest at night until every citizen in every state in this country can say, ‘This is the person I love,' and take their hand in marriage," said Representative Anthony D. Weiner of Brooklyn.
In Los Angeles, where wildfires had temporarily grabbed headlines from continuing protests over Proposition 8, Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa addressed a crowd of about 9,000 people in Spanish and English, and seemed to express confidence that the measure, which is being challenged in California courts, would be overturned.
"I've come here from the fires because I feel the wind at my back as well," said the mayor, who arrived at a downtown rally from the fire zone on a helicopter. "It's the wind of change that has swept the nation. It is the wind of optimism and hope."
About 900 protesters braved a tornado watch and menacing rain clouds in Washington to rally in front of the Capitol and on to the White House. "Gay, straight, black, white; marriage is a civil right," the marchers chanted.
In Las Vegas, the comedian Wanda Sykes surprised a crowd of more than 1,000 rallying outside a gay community center by announcing that she is gay and had wed her wife in California on Oct. 25. Ms. Sykes, who divorced her husband of seven years in 1998, had never publicly discussed her sexual orientation but said the passage of Proposition 8 had propelled her to be open about it.
"I felt like I was being attacked, personally attacked - our community was attacked," she told the crowd.
And while some speakers were obviously eager to tap crowds' current outrage, others took pains to cast the demonstrations as a peaceful, long-term, campaign over an issue that has proved remarkably and consistently divisive.
"We need to be our best selves," said the Rev. G. Penny Nixon, a gay pastor from San Mateo, Calif., who warned the San Francisco crowd against blaming "certain communities" for the election loss. "This is a movement based on love."
The protests were organized largely over the Internet, and featured few representatives of major gay rights groups that campaigned against Proposition 8, which passed with 52 percent of the vote after trailing for months in the polls. The online aspect seemed to draw a broad cross-section of people, like Nicole Toussaint, a kindergarten teacher who joined a crowd of more than 1,000 people in Minneapolis.
"I'm here to support my friends who are gay," said Ms. Toussaint, 23. "I think my generation will play a big role."
The big crowds notwithstanding, it has been a tough month for gay rights. Proposition 8 was just one of three measures on same-sex marriage passed on Nov. 4, with constitutional bans also being approved in Arizona and Florida. In Arkansas, voters passed a measure aimed at barring gay men and lesbians from adopting children.
That vote was on the minds of many of the 200 people who protested Saturday in front of the State Capitol in Little Rock. One of those, Barb L'Eplattenier, 39, a university professor, said some of her gay friends with adopted children were fearful of state action if they appeared in public. "They think their families are in danger," said Ms. L'Eplattenier, who married her partner, Sarah Scanlon, in California in July.
The protests over Proposition 8 also come even as same-sex marriages began Wednesday in Connecticut, which joined Massachusetts as the only states allowing such ceremonies. By contrast, 30 states have constitutional bans on such unions.
At a Boston rally on Saturday, Kate Leslie, an organizer, said the loss in California had certainly caught the attention of local gay men and lesbians who have had the right to marry since 2004.
"You're watching people who could be you and are part of your community being stripped of their rights," Ms. Leslie said. "And in some ways that's why so many people are infuriated in Massachusetts and willing to stand up for a rally."
In California, a State Supreme Court decision legalized same-sex marriage in May. As many as 18,000 couples married, some traveling from other states to tie the knot. Such marriages may be challenged in court.
David McMullin, a garden designer from Atlanta, was one of those who made the trip, marrying his partner in Oakland, Calif., in September, in part to let their two adoptive children feel part of a married family.
"We just want our kids to know we're O.K.," said Mr. McMullin, who had come to a protest in front of the Georgia State Capitol. "We have rights as people even if we don't have rights as citizens."
Supporters of the proposition have repeatedly argued that Proposition 8 was not antigay, but merely pro-marriage.
"The marriage is between a man and women," said Frank Schubert, the campaign manager for Protect Marriage, the leading group behind passing Proposition 8. "If they want to legalize same-sex marriage, they are gong to have to bring a proposal before the people of California. That's how democracy works."
Equality California, a major gay rights group here, indicated this week that it would work to repeal Proposition 8 if legal challenges fail.
Such dry approaches seemed a million miles away, however, from the boisterous scene in front of San Francisco City Hall on Saturday, where as many as 10,000 people gathered, carrying signs, American flags and even copies of their marriage licenses.
One of those was Lawrence Dean, 57, who had married his partner, Steven Lyle, in San Francisco in July. It was the fifth time that the couple of 19 years had held a ceremony to announce their commitment, and, of course, accept wedding gifts.
"If we keep this up, maybe I won't have to again," Mr. Dean said, looking out at the protest. "I have enough pots and pans."
Reporting was contributed by Robbie Brown from Atlanta; Steve Barnes from Little Rock; Christina Capecchi from Minneapolis; Francesca Segrè from Los Angeles; Katie Zezima from Boston; Ashley Southall from Washington; Steve Friess from Las Vegas; and C. J. Hughes from New York.