Associated Press Writer

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) Hundreds of same-sex couples and their supporters marched Saturday through dusty California farm towns, pushing for gay marriage in the state's conservative center.

Just days after the state's highest court upheld a ban on gay marriage, advocates said they wouldn't be dissuaded, and vowed to win the hearts and minds of those who reject their unions.

They pledged to put a new initiative before voters to overturn the ban perhaps as soon as next year and to take their message to Washington in October.

The weekend-long event has attracted the movement's veteran activists and celebrities including Charlize Theron and Eric McCormack. It was organized by a lesbian mother in Fresno who was removed from the parent-teacher association at her son's Roman Catholic school after she spoke out against banning same-sex weddings.

"Fresno represents middle America values, and we can start changing our neighbors' feelings about gay marriage beginning right here in the Central Valley," said lead organizer Robin McGehee, a 36-year-old college professor who married her longtime partner last year. "We're doing exactly what the freedom riders would do in the South in the 1960s, which is reaching into communities that are different from us so we can all live in equality."

Many gay activists now believe their campaign against Proposition 8 which enshrined the ban on gay marriage in the state Constitution focused too much on liberal urban enclaves along the coast, failing even to reach out to the state's rural regions. The measure passed with nearly 69 percent of the vote in Fresno County, compared to 52 percent statewide.

"We aren't here to impose our beliefs on anyone. We are here to begin a dialogue on civil rights," said Cleve Jones, a pioneer activist and protege of Harvey Milk, San Francisco's first openly gay leader who was slain in 1978. "Harvey said we can't win unless we open up our hearts to connecting with people who appear to be very different from us."

Paying homage to the 1965 marches in Selma, Ala., that marked the peak of the civil rights movement, the "Meet in the Middle 4 Equality" protest began Saturday morning in Selma, Calif., the self-proclaimed raisin capital of the world.

Hundreds of spirited marchers were escorted by the California Highway Patrol along an aging highway to Fresno, a city of more than 450,000 and the largest in the agricultural San Joaquin Valley. On the lawn adjacent to City Hall organizers flew a massive rainbow flag on loan from San Francisco's Castro District, the nexus of the city's gay and lesbian community.

Several thousand people gathered for the festive, boisterous event, some wearing wedding dresses or carrying rainbow flags, a symbol of support for gay rights.

Theron hugged couples, pumped her fist in the air and clapped vigorously as she stood by the stage in the nearly triple-digit heat.

"We need to get awareness out everywhere, and I think this is a good place to start," she told The Associated Press.

McCormack, an actor who portrayed a gay man on the TV series "Will & Grace" for eight seasons, said he wanted to ask people who oppose gay marriage how it hurts them.

"The gays aren't going to break marriage," he told the crowd. "Think about it: They're gay. They'll probably spruce it up and make it a little nicer."

Cassandra Zamora, 17, said she was overwhelmed with emotion at seeing so many supporters in her conservative city.

"Usually you really don't see a lot of gay people here. Our parents and our environment don't let us do anything," said Zamora.

The campaign's next phase will train thousands of volunteers and faith leaders to canvass door-to-door to talk about the issue with neighbors, said Rick Jacobs, chair of the Courage Campaign. Representatives from all 50 states will march on Washington on October 11 to coincide with National Coming Out Day, said Rick Jacobs, chair of the Courage Campaign.

"We're not doing what we used to do, which is meet in West Hollywood," Jacobs said. "We want people from all 435 congressional districts to tell their stories in Washington."

There were few protesters, although some skeptical residents were curious to see what all the commotion was about Saturday.

Tom Johnson, 57, a disabled Vietnam veteran from Clovis, a Fresno suburb, said he had never heard of such an event happening in town, so he came downtown for a look.

"I'm against people coming into our community with those viewpoints. I just can't accept it," Johnson said. "People already voted yes on Prop. 8. That's the law and we should follow it."

On Sunday, Fresno's former mayor and a conservative Christian pastor planned to preside over a celebration of heterosexual marriage and nearly a dozen religious and social conservative groups planned a similar event in San Diego.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.