SAN FRANCISCO -- Thousands of rainbows appeared under the blue sky Sunday as an estimated half million people lined the streets to celebrate diversity and progress during the city's 32nd annual gay pride parade.
The people were just as colorful as the flags they waved -- gay, straight, young and old. Some wore leather, feathers, or held balloons while others sported little more than a smile.
In San Francisco, the Dykes on Bikes, a rumbling motorcade of several hundred women on motorcycles, kicked off the event followed by their quieter, male counterparts pedaling bicycles as part of the Mikes on Bikes.
But mixed in with the fun, the parade also had a serious side outlining battles such as AIDS, domestic partner benefits and hate crimes that still have a long way to go in the gay community's struggle to obtain equal rights.
Jean Fichtenkort, a lesbian from Berkeley, was there with her 16-month-old adopted son, Michael Heffner. She and her partner of 14 years have attended many parades, and she's thrilled they keep getting bigger.
"We're very fortunate to live here and we know it," she said. "Little by little the changes are happening and when he's an adult, it's going to be nothing."
Actor Sir Ian McKellen, who starred in "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" and "Gods and Monsters," served as one of the parade's celebrity grand marshals in his first San Francisco parade. Wearing a long white coat and waving the British flag, he leaped from his silver convertible and raced to hug and kiss a group of bare-chested men standing on the sidewalk.
"For generations the people in San Francisco have set standards for the rest of the world to catch up to," said McKellen, who decided to come out in 1988 while performing Shakespeare here.
Sharon Smith was expected to march in the four-hour parade in memory of her partner, Diane Whipple, who was fatally mauled to death by dogs outside their apartment in January 2001. Alice Hoglan also was expected to be there in support of her son, Mark Bingham, who was believed to have helped thwart the terrorists on Sept. 11 aboard Flight 93.
San Francisco wasn't the only city that closed off the streets to party -- celebrations were under way across the nation, including New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle and Minneapolis.
Hundreds of thousands also turned out for Chicago's 33rd annual parade, which marks the end of Gay and Lesbian Pride Month in Chicago, designated by Mayor Richard Daley.
Singers, politicians and media personalities rode floats in the spectacle that also included motorcycles, rainbow flags and colorful costumes.
"When you look at the crowd here, there are mothers and fathers and grandmothers and children and brothes and sisters. Equal rights, non-discrimination ... It's a fundamental right," said Rep. Larry McKeon, a Democrat who represents Chicago.
In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg was applauded as he marched near the front of the parade.
"That's what makes New York so great, that everyone can live here and live here together, can build a career, can express themselves and can celebrate the greatness that is New York," he said.
Tens of thousands of spectators lined the Fifth Avenue parade route to cheer the marchers.
Some 50 same-sex couples kicked off the parade with a mass wedding at Fifth Avenue and Central Park South. The ceremony performed by clergy of several faiths was not legally binding but served as a rallying point for activists who would like to see gay couples accorded the same rights as heterosexual couples.
The parade commemorates the Stonewall riots of 1969 when patrons of a gay bar in Greenwich Village fought back against a police raid.
Stephen Ciaglia of Manhattan marched with his partner, Jeffrey Newman.
"We live a very open life in a very open city," he said. "But it's really nice to see people from all over the Eastern seaboard coming to New York on this day to embrace who they are."