Last Saturday, under the shade of a tree and only a block away from the charged-up crowd that gathered in downtown Fresno for the statewide pro-gay marriage rally called "Meet in the Middle," Rachel Bowman, a male-to-female transgender, sat on a fold out chair on the sidewalk and offered free bottles of water to people who passed by.
"The Central Valley is conservative," she said. "It's just a bunch of cowboys, rednecks, and farmers. Real macho. Only a couple of years ago, you wouldn't even whisper about civil rights here. But now the gay community has had enough. They're finally starting to speak out."
And now that people are speaking out, Bowman said, something very interesting is happening among those cowboys and rednecks.
"People respect the fact that we've been standing up for ourselves," said Bowman, "and standing up for our rights."
Bowman, in fact, belongs to an LGBT speaking group, where people can call a number and ask for a panel of gay folks to speak at their school or hospital...for educational purposes.
"A lot of people in our hospitals, and a lot of teachers, don't know how to speak or handle the gay community," she said. "I think more (gay) people in cities nationwide should be creating speakers bureaus. That's how you can reach out to people."
Bowman then offered some passersby free bottles of water, and returned to her thoughts.
"They have pre-conceived notions of what a gay person is," she said, "but when they meet someone who is gay, they often change their minds. I'm glad the gay community has finally woken up and is speaking up."
Things have been exactly perfect, though, for Bowman during these more enlightened times. Just a few weeks, she was visiting a photocopying store in Fresno when the manager of the place walked up to her and said she must leave immediately.
"I didn't do anything," Bowman said. "I was just making copies of something. But someone must have complained to the manager that I was there. I'm not confrontational, so I left. But when I was unlocking my bike outside, the manager followed me and told me again, 'You must leave now!'"
Bowman soon went to the Transgender Law Center and sought legal help. Staff then wrote a letter to the store, asking for the manager to be better trained in dealing with people like Bowman. "If they resist," she said, "then we'll ask for damages."
In the meantime, Bowman and other LGBT activists have taken up the grassroots work of knocking on doors and asking for people's support when the new pro-gay marriage ballot measure comes online in 2010 or 2012.
"We went to a lot of neighborhoods that are anti-gay," Bowman said, "but we only had two doors slammed in our faces. Other people said they would never vote for us. We also found that a lot of people misunderstood what they were voting for last time around. They thought voting 'yes' meant they were voting for gay marriage, not against it."
Bowman looked down the block and smiled. "You know we would've been happy if 60 people showed up to 'Meet in the Middle,' but now we have something like 5,000." She offered more bottles of water as people walked by.
Contact Patrick Range McDonald at email@example.com.