SELMA, Fresno County - On a dusty patch of ground near Super Dave's Car Wash here in California's raisin capital, the next phase of the same-sex marriage movement began Saturday with a morning march - led by a Fresno lesbian mother carrying Harvey Milk's old bullhorn.
"You have got to reach into those communities that struggle to understand us," organizer Robin McGehee exhorted the people gathered there shortly before 8 a.m. for the 14 1/2-mile march to Fresno City Hall for an event called Meet in the Middle for Equality.
Those who marched say any road to a possible November 2010 ballot referendum legalizing same-sex marriage must go through California's conservative Bible Belt. They kicked off the drive with 3,000 people attending Saturday's march in the belt's geographic center, aiming to sway those who supported Proposition 8 by sharing personal stories, one on one, with friends and neighbors, just as Milk would have advised.
It will be challenging. Folks like Lew Ceja will be hard to sway.
Sitting a few blocks away from City Hall at a motorcycle club-sponsored street party, listening to a band play a Lynyrd Skynyrd song, the 66-year-old who lives in Hanford (Kings County) was asked what it would take for him to vote to legalize same-sex marriage.
He thrust forward the cross hanging around his neck. Nothing could.
"It's God's law," said Ceja, a retired law enforcement officer, who wore his motorcycle club's leather vest despite the 92-degree heat. He's the chaplain for his club, which co-sponsored RevFest in downtown Fresno; in the valley, even the motorcycle clubs are religious. He said he didn't have anything against gays. Didn't mind them marching through town. But he couldn't vote to legalize same-sex marriage.
Neither could Dick Echaniz. "Hey, my daughter's gay," the 50-year-old Fowler (Fresno County) resident said, as he admired a motorcycle for sale. If she were to get married, he'd attend. And he'd always love her. That's why he was unsure about how to vote for Prop. 8 until he got into the voting booth. Ultimately, he said, "I got to back my church, man. I couldn't vote against my pastor."
Could any campaign work here?
"You're campaigning against the Bible," said his nephew T.J. Echaniz. "And you're not going to win that battle here."
Same-sex-marriage supporters weren't harassed or bothered Saturday along their route, and there weren't counter-demonstrations of any size. The stray drag queens who milled about the crowd Saturday were anomalies; most of the crowd was dressed for the weather, sporting nothing louder than the homemade T-shirt worn by 24-year-old Kate Perry: "Central Valley Grown Queer." Even a bit of Hollywood showed up. Straight "Will & Grace" star Eric McCormack spoke briefly and Oscar winner Charlize Theron put in an appearance.
Supporters of Prop. 8 plan a response to the rally with their own gathering here tonight. Standing in the Middle for Marriage will celebrate last week's California Supreme Court decision to uphold the voter-approved initiative.
The effort at claiming the "middle" is all about seizing the minds of the undecided voters in the Central Valley. People like Layne Soares hope to help.
Soares served in the Army for three years until she was honorably discharged in the mid-1990s. She walked the march in her uniform, looking like she stepped out of a recruitment poster. Though the 35-year-old has been out to friends and family for years, she told some of her co-workers just a few days ago - before she spoke at the rally, the first time she's spoken publicly about that part of her life. In the valley, telling people you're gay is not something you do until you have to.
"I'm a firm believer in people getting to know me as a person first before I talk about that," she said. "There is more to me than that.
"There's this mind-set here that gay people are just weird," she said. "That's what we have to work to change here."
That reticence to go public is why many said Saturday that they were marching for a gay friend or family member who was reluctant to go public. Surrounded by like-minded souls - and escorted by law enforcement vehicles - Chris Lynn felt comfortable enough to wrap himself in a rainbow flag Saturday on the march. But he would never hold hands with his boyfriend after he got out of the car to go see a movie in some parts of Fresno.
"Oh, no," said Lynn, a 21-year-old Reedley College student. "You never know what might happen to your car while you were gone."
Still, Cleve Jones, a Milk associate, said, "Harvey would have loved this because he said the single most important thing you can do is come out." Jones brought the bullhorn Milk used to rally supporters during the Coors beer boycott.
This is Jones' fourth visit to Fresno in recent months, as he and many other longtime activists believe that the Central Valley is "the front lines" of this fight.
"Not the Castro or West Hollywood," he said. "To put a 'No on 8' sign in your window in San Francisco isn't a big deal. In Fresno, it is."