Newlyweds Hinda Groner, 69, and Millie Burt, 78, were afraid people would criticize them for getting married in San Francisco in March.
Instead, they've found acceptance, and the unexpected happiness of feeling part of a larger community, Groner said.
Dressed in wedding white, the couple rode proudly in their green Chrysler on Sunday during the 14th annual Sonoma County Pride Parade and Festival.
"We've been active in the community, but a part of our life was private. The feeling of openness is something I underestimated," Groner said.
Parade organizers credited the issue of same-sex marriage for bringing approximately 2,000 people to the parade and festival, about twice the number of participants as last year, said Adrienne Miller, president of the Sonoma County Pride Committee.
In the past year, Massachusetts' Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex couples' right to be married and Mayor Gavin Newsom opened the door for same-sex marriage in San Francisco, an issue soon to be decided by the California Supreme Court. President Bush responded by calling for a constitutional amendment that would define the only legal marriage as between a man and a woman.
"It's about the issues the county and the community are dealing with," Miller said. "People realize they need to come out and be seen and be heard for change to occur."
The group changed its name this year, from Sonoma County Lesbian and Gay Pride to Sonoma County Pride, to embrace those who don't consider themselves part of the straight or gay community, such as those who are bisexual or transgendered.
The parade and festival have moved steadily into the mainstream since the turn of the century.
In 2001, the city of Santa Rosa supported the celebration with a City Council proclamation. That was also the first year that a contingent of Santa Rosa police officers and other city employees marched in the parade, which also included city firetrucks and a city bus.
A year later the first openly gay elected public official in Sonoma County, Mayor Janet Orchard of Cotati, served as grand marshal. Church groups friendly to gay rights also began supporting the parade.
This year the parade included a new group - Marriage Equality California - composed of those who married in San Francisco in February and March and their supporters.
Nearly 150 couples from Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties were among the 4,037 same-sex couples who received marriage licenses in San Francisco during the 29-day period they were allowed.
"It's such a basic right," said Pamela Jensen of Santa Rosa, who marched in the parade with her partner, Kasey O'Keefe. The two women chose not to be married in San Francisco City Hall and are holding out for a family wedding with all the trimmings - someday, when it's legal to do so.
"We didn't want to get married in an assembly line. We want to do it in our hometown with our friends and family and make a celebration of it," Jensen said.
The parade, which began at Third and E streets and ended at Santa Rosa Junior College, was without conflict. About a dozen people quietly stood along the parade route holding signs with Bible verses, in opposition of the gay lifestyle.
The annual Community Recognition Award at this year's festival went to Diane and Anne Giles of Santa Rosa for their "activism, education and leadership" in the transgender community.
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