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A Fresno-area gay rights activist witnesses history at the White House

A group of adults holding a pride flag stand smiling in front of the White House.
Courtesy Robin McGehee
Robin McGehee (left) and her wife Karen Johnston (third from left) smile outside the White House in celebration of President Biden signing the Respect for Marriage Act into law.

FRESNO, Calif. — As President Joe Biden signed gay marriage legislation on a chilly Tuesday afternoon last week, a Fresno-area activist was among those witnessing history.

It was a full circle moment for Robin McGehee, who was once arrested for chaining herself to the White House gate in protest of the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell' policy, which prevented openly gay people from serving in the military.

McGehee, also a community college professor, was finishing a class at the College of the Sequoias in Visalia when she got the call from a White House representative inviting her to witness the signing.

“[They] said ‘Look, you’ve chained yourself to the White House fence. Now it’s time to come in and celebrate',” McGehee told KVPR as she boarded her plane to Washington, D.C. last week.

McGehee’s activism began in 2008 when California's Proposition 8 was on the ballot. The constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in the state was controversial and ultimately did not pass. McGehee, who is openly gay, was the president of the Parent Teacher Association at a local Catholic school at the time.

McGehee says she gave a public interview opposing Prop 8 and was subsequently asked to leave her position. That launched her passion to fight for LGBTQ rights, which included organizing marches in Fresno and Washington, D.C.

She said being at the White House with her wife, Karen Johnston, more than ten years later for the signing of the Respect for Marriage Act was “absolutely amazing.”

Selfie photos of women smiling in front of the White House.
Courtesy Robin McGehee
Robin McGehee, left, shares selfies from her visit to the White House this month.

At the ceremony, singers Sam Smith and Cyndi Lauper performed and Vice President Kamala Harris recalled officiating at a lesbian wedding in San Francisco. Lawmakers from both parties attended, reflecting the growing acceptance of same-sex unions, once among the country's most contentious issues.

At the signing President Biden said “This law and the love it defends strike a blow against hate in all its forms.”

The Respect for Marriage Act is intended to safeguard gay marriages if the U.S. Supreme Court ever reverses Obergefell v. Hodges — the 2015 decision legalizing same-sex unions nationwide. The new law also protects interracial marriages.

The signing marks the culmination of a monthslong bipartisan effort sparked by the Supreme Court’s decision in June to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that made abortion available across the country.

Lawmakers crafted a compromise that was intended to assuage conservative concerns about religious liberty, such as ensuring churches could still refuse to perform gay marriages.

A majority of Republicans in Congress still voted against the legislation. However, enough supported it to sidestep a filibuster in the Senate and ensure its passage.

Despite Tuesday's excitement, there was concern about the nationwide proliferation of conservative policies on gender issues at the state level.

“Racism, antisemitism, homophobia, transphobia, they’re all connected," Biden said. “But the antidote to hate is love.”

Among the attendees were the owner of Club Q, a gay nightclub in Colorado where five people were killed in a shooting last month, and two survivors of the attack. The suspect has been charged with hate crimes.

McGehee, the Valley activist, said the shooting at Club Q made Tuesday's signing all the more poignant.

“To know that we can close out the year feeling a little bit more protected, that's a very beautiful feeling, especially in a climate that feels like it has gotten more hate filled and violent towards LGBTQ people,” McGehee said. “To end this year with this type of win felt very powerful.”

Associated Press reporter Chris Megerian contributed to this story.

Elizabeth Arakelian is the host of All Things Considered. A Valley native, Elizabeth earned her bachelor's degree in English Language Literatures from the University of California, Santa Cruz and her master's degree in journalism from New York University. She has covered a range of beats. Her agriculture reporting for the Turlock Journal earned her a first place award from the California Newspaper Publishers Association. While in graduate school she covered the New Hampshire Primary for NBC Owned Television Stations and subsequently worked as a television ratings analyst for the company's business news network, CNBC. Upon returning to California, her role as a higher education public relations professional reconnected her to the Valley's media scene. She is happy to be back to her journalism roots as the local host of All Things Considered.