SAN FRANCISCO – Undeterred by recent setbacks in the push to legalize same-sex marriage (search), tens of thousands of festively dressed people marched in parades around the country Sunday to celebrate the 35th anniversary of gay pride (search).
People celebrated in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Seattle, Atlanta and other cities, though the event comes during a tough period for gay rights advocates. A bill to legalize same-sex marriage died this year in the California Assembly, and many states have passed or are pursuing constitutional amendments outlawing gay marriage.
"I'm here to let the rest of the world know that we're here and we want to be seen," said Clarence Smelcer, 43, an AIDS activist watching the San Francisco parade. "We're part of everyone's lives and the parade is a wonderful way to show it."
Gay pride is a virtual holiday in San Francisco and thousands gathered early for the parade, including men in kilts sporting rainbow-colored wigs, cross-dressers in kimonos and heterosexual couples waving rainbow flags.
The parade opened with a blocks-long contingent of "Dykes on Bikes" — lesbians dressed in leather driving loud motorcycles. Participants also included a bearded man in a wedding gown singing Madonna's (search) "Like a Virgin," a gay and lesbian marching band and a group of parents and friends of lesbians and gays.
The annual pride parades commemorate the Stonewall uprising of 1969, a series of fights between gays and police in New York widely considered the beginning of the gay rights movement. The parades began the next year in 1970.
There were also subtle reminders in the celebrations Sunday of the struggles ahead. Many in the San Francisco crowd wore stickers that read, "We All Deserve The Freedom to Marry."
"Anytime you have a big group of people screaming and hollering people will pay attention," said Jorge Vieto Jr., 27, who left Costa Rica because of discrimination against gays. "Marriage should be an equal opportunity, not a heterosexual right."
Ming Chan, 33, and Steve Ribisi, 34, watched the parade with their 18-month-old son, Joshua. Though they said some would view their relationship as a threat to the sanctity of marriage, they just wanted the chance to raise their son together.
"People should see us and know we're going through the same problems as other parents," Chan said.
Activists elsewhere also said they were energized by the political climate.
"People are more fired up this year," said George Estelle, who attended the Atlanta march and organized a parade float by Human Rights Campaign, a gay and lesbian lobbying group. "They're angry that they feel there's been a lot of misrepresentation about them done this year during the elections."
In New York, men in button-down shirts outnumbered men in G-strings in a parade some said was less flamboyant than in past years — but still politically relevant. U.S. Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles Schumer were among the marchers.
"It used to be all drag queens all the time," said Susan Yousem, of suburban Cortlandt Manor, N.Y. "Now it's been sort of mainstreamed — for good or bad. There are a lot of church groups, a lot of families."
Anthony Polito, marching in New York with the Stonewall Veterans' Association, remembered "knocking a couple of cops down" during the 1969 rioting. In a sign of the changing times, Sunday's parade featured contingents from the city police and fire departments, including recruitment vans.
In Conway, Ark., about 300 people marched in the city's second pride parade, easily outnumbering a small group of protesters. Last year, organizers reported receiving death threats and a farmer protesting the event dumped three tons of manure along the parade route.
Organizer Robert Loyd hailed this year's event as a success, though he accused the mayor of trying to sabotage it by changing the approved route a few days before.
"Last year we had to deal with 6,000 pounds of manure. This year we had to deal with manure of a different source, and we can thank Mayor Tab Townsell for that," Loyd said during a speech at the end of the parade.
Townsell said last week the change was made to ensure public safety and that the city welcomed "the full expression of everyone's American freedoms."