In 2005, after Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed marriage equality, I took my then-boyfriend to a protest – where we marched from the Castro to the LGBT Center on Market Street. My ex grew up in Fresno, and at the time he told me it didn’t make sense to have a gay marriage rally in San Francisco – because we were preaching to the choir. On May 30th, I joined over 3,000 people in Fresno to kick off a statewide campaign to repeal Proposition 8. Meet in the Middle for Equality was one of the most powerful mass rallies I ever attended – because it was focused, strategic and executed to have an impact. Local activists who attended were floored by the turnout, and those who had traveled from across California knew their presence mattered – because no successful effort to restore marriage equality can ignore a section of the state. Prop 8 passed because the top-down leadership in the LGBT community figured they could make decisions for us, but “Meet in the Middle” happened because grassroots activists wanted to take ownership of the movement – and a mass rally in Fresno was the logical thing to do. To my surprise, no counter-protesters were there to greet us – despite being in the heart of California’s “Bible Belt.”

In his last book, Markos Moulitsas said the era of mass rallies is over – because our world has so changed that a thousand people in the streets doesn’t grab the attention of (or influence) the public anymore. As a San Franciscan, I’ve had my share of street protests and rallies over the years – as the steps of our City Hall is a frequent spot for activists to call attention to their latest cause. Time passes, and these marches all seem to blend in – with limited impact on the issue. I don’t believe mass rallies are passé, but they must be unique to stand out.

And a gay marriage rally in Fresno with more than 3,000 people is special enough to grab attention. Not only is Fresno a conservative town, where the County voted 70-30 to pass Prop 8 in November. It also doesn’t have an activist culture like the Bay Area, no matter what political viewpoint we’re talking about. The steps of Fresno City Hall almost never sees anything on the scale of what we saw Saturday. There were big immigration rallies in 2006 (Fresno has a large Latino population), and the religious right brings their people out for demonstrations. But none of the locals I asked could remember this many people coming out for any cause – which made the mass rally both newsworthy and effective.

Fresno residents at the rally were floored by the turnout, and grateful to all who traveled across the state to attend. It’s not easy being openly gay in Fresno, and it gave them a sense that they matter. One stranger gave me a hug, and another said how wonderful it was to finally not have to go to the Bay Area for these events. But it would be grossly inaccurate to describe it as gay activists from Los Angeles and San Francisco coming to “invade” Fresno for the weekend. At the beginning, the emcee asked people to cheer if they were from Northern California, Southern California or the Central Valley. By far the loudest applause was from local residents – who comprised about half of the crowd.

One thing that always plagues these rallies is left-wing splinter groups, who show up to promote their miscellaneous cause – which has nothing to do with the march. You can have an enormous rally against the War in Iraq – but you’ll have tons of people holding signs that say Free Palestine, Free Mumia, Haiti, Somalia and a few LaRouche fanatics. This makes the demonstration unfocused, and subject to ridicule. I spent time wandering through Saturday’s rally, but the only cause I could find that was not marriage was about “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” Even International ANSWER cooperated in that regard, as they passed out their own flyer about repealing Prop 8 – which was perfectly on message.

With Fresno in the heart of California’s “Bible Belt,” I fully expected the religious right to be there in full force to oppose us. Prop 8 supporters were planning a counter-rally for the following day, but even San Francisco demonstrations for marriage equality attract the nutcases who tell us we’re going to Hell. I couldn’t find a single detractor who was there to oppose us. At one point, I thought someone was carrying a “Yes on 8” sign, but it was a marriage equality supporter who had defaced a few of the opposition’s posters – and re-arranged the letters to spell “No on 8 – Marriage for All.” I just had to take a picture.

Supporters of Prop 8 had their demonstration last night in front of Fresno City Hall, but the turnout simply did not match ours. Unfortunately, the press called them “supporters of traditional marriage” – as if gay marriage advocates are somehow opposed to letting straight people tie the knot. A more honest description would be “opponents of marriage equality.” We’re not motivated in this fight by what we’re against, but they are.

“Meet in the Middle” was about kicking off the campaign to restore marriage equality – and making sure we don’t repeat the same mistakes of the “No on 8” effort. One was to run a top-down campaign that kept all decision-making in the hands of the “gatekeepers” of the LGBT community, which disempowered grassroots activists who were willing and able to influence their neighbors in places like Fresno. In the weeks after Prop 8 passed, we saw spontaneous protests across the country that were organized by everyday activists. It’s time for people who are passionate about this issue not to wait for directions, but to get involved.

It was Robin McGehee, a lesbian PTA mom from Fresno, who came up with “Meet in the Middle.” She doesn’t work for the Human Rights Campaign, or Equality California. All she did was attend Camp Courage, and suggested activists get together on the Saturday after the Supreme Court decision on Prop 8 – and hold a rally in Fresno. Robin was upset that “No on 8” had ignored the Central Valley, which despite being a conservative region has many persuadable swing voters. With help from the Courage Campaign and Marriage Equality USA, she made the event happen. At the rally, Robin said that if she could name all the individuals who had made the rally possible “there would be too few.” It was a people-powered effort.

Now, the next step is to decide whether to go back to the voters in 2010 or 2012. About 250 activists met in Fresno yesterday, as they evaluated the benefits and disadvantages of pursuing a ballot proposition next year. Marriage Equality USA is planning town hall meetings across the state in July, so more can weigh in on this decision. Even if some don’t agree with the final consensus, at least they will know that they were listened to this time.