Met in the middle for equality

LGBT activists are coming together to re-energize the fight to win same-sex marriage rights in California, writes Ashley Simmons.

The Meet in the Middle rally in Fresno began with a march from the nearby agricultural town of Selma (Ragina Johnson | SW)The Meet in the Middle rally in Fresno began with a march from the nearby agricultural town of Selma (Ragina Johnson | SW)

ON MAY 30, the Saturday after the California Supreme Court ruled to uphold the Proposition 8 same-sex marriage ban, more than 5,000 same-sex marriage supporters from across California gathered in the Central Valley city of Fresno for the Meet in the Middle for Equality statewide rally.

Led by Robin McGehee, Fresno locals organized the event to empower activists in rural communities who have often been ignored by the Democratic Party and mainstream liberal groups, and to draw attention to the need for organizing around lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights in all areas of the country.

Local activists were dismayed that 70 percent of Fresno voted "yes" on Proposition 8 after the "No on Prop 8" campaign pulled virtually all of its ad spots and most of its campaign resources from the area, essentially writing off the fifth-largest city in California as a lost cause.

McGehee and others want to turn that around, stating in the Meet in the Middle mission statement, "Win or lose, we are kicking off a statewide and national effort toward full federal equality, and we are kicking it off in Fresno."

The day began in the agricultural town of Selma, Calif., with 100 activists planning to march 15 miles into downtown Fresno. Organizers modeled the march after the 1965 civil rights march from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery.

McGehee, who grew up in Jackson, Miss., addressed the connection of the movement for same-sex marriage with the civil rights struggles of the past. "We are here to paying respect to the social movements before us," she said. "This is a symbolic march from Selma to Fresno, Calif. It's important to show respect to the social movements before us, like the Freedom Summers and the farmworkers' movement."

A diverse group set off, with civil rights veterans from the United Farm Workers, NAACP and Southern Leadership Conference joining new grassroots activists, including members of One Struggle One Fight and the Fresno-based Straight Advocates for Equality. Lt. Dan Choi, who was recently discharged from the U.S. military under the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, marched proudly, waving a rainbow flag and wearing a T-shirt that read, "Don't Hide."

As temperatures rose above 90 degrees, the marchers crossed train tracks and passed fields with grapevines, receiving horn honks and thumbs up from beat-up pick-up trucks and freight train conductors, as well as the many LGBT rights supporters heading into Fresno on buses and in car caravans.

Rev. Eric Lee said of the march, "The pain in my feet and in my back does not compare to the pain and suffering of discrimination and injustice. So I will walk another 15 miles, another 15 miles, and another 15 miles--putting one foot in front of the other until we have equality."

At the city limits of Fresno, over 150 local married LGBT couples and organizers joined the march. The triumphant march finally snaked through the packed downtown Fresno City Square, greeted by the 5,000-strong Meet in the Middle crowd.

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THE EVENT was such a huge success because it was organized from the bottom up.

Over 70 activists met each Monday in Fresno to plan Meet in the Middle, an indication of the grassroots activity within the LGBT movement. The crowd was diverse, with hundreds coming in on buses from San Diego, San Francisco and Los Angeles, joining thousands of residents from Fresno and the surrounding counties.

The mood was decidedly confident as veteran activist Cleve Jones took to the stage, declaring:

We are here today to bear witness in a new chapter in our history of struggle. We will wait no longer...There are no fractions of equality. Every compromise, every delay undermines our humanity. We seek nothing less than equal protection under the law, in all matters governed by civil law, in all 50 states.

Holding up slain LGBT leader Harvey Milk's bullhorn, Jones continued, "I bring this here today to remind you of what is possible." He called for mobilization in all 435 congressional districts for a national LGBT rights march on Washington D.C.

The crowd cheered furiously in support of a planned 2010 ballot initiative to overturn Prop 8 when Chaz Lowe of Yes on Equality spoke about the need "to ensure that next time around, it will come from the grassroots and represent all of us. This campaign doesn't belong to me or Yes on Equality. It belongs to the whole movement."

In support of the Fresno community during the economic crisis, a canned food drive was set up at the rally. According to the Meet in the Middle coalition, it "encourages equality for all, and believes that full equality includes economic as well as social justice." The group called attention to the fact that while 8 percent of the country's produce comes from the Central Valley of California, thousands in the area go to bed hungry, or belong to the ranks of Fresno's homeless population of 16,000.

According to the most recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figure, Fresno County currently has a 15.5 percent unemployment rate. To the many residents struggling under crippling economic circumstances, Meet in the Middle was an inspiration, showing ordinary people coming together to fight for human dignity and justice.

Anthony, a Fresno resident who has been unemployed for a year, expressed his support for the rally. "This is the biggest event for equality rights I've ever been to," he said. "I'm tingling all over."

Then he spoke about his anger at the budget cuts that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has been making to in-home support services. Anthony had been avoiding getting on government aid because, like many working people, he was too proud to ask for help. He just started receiving food stamps this week, and he said he "feels like a human being again."

Janine Carmona of One Struggle One Fight delivered a powerful argument for building a fighting LGBT movement that can link with various struggles against oppression and exploitation:

There are so many intersections between our struggles and the struggles of other people, that we actually share victories and losses. As long as someone somewhere is oppressed, we are not free, and we understand that. We are fighting entrenched, systematic institutionalized homophobia and transphobia that is expressed through laws, policies, regulations and constitutional amendments.

You know what to do with a law that is fundamentally unjust, don't you? What do you do? You break it!

Meet in the Middle represents an important step forward for the burgeoning LGBT rights movement in California, which is going on the offensive for marriage equality and much more.

Ragina Johnson contributed to this article.