By Shadi Rahimi -- Today correspondent
SAN FRANCISCO - They were hidden behind a sea of kicking legs as dozens of cheerleaders paused to form towering pyramids during the annual San Francisco pride parade.
As Cheer SF parted and ran past the cheering crowd, another group emerged - quietly - led by a Jingle dancer, a man in a ribbon shirt holding a feathered staff, a Traditional dancer and a man in a Plains-style bonnet.
They were members of Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits, an often-invisible minority even within one of the most liberal cities in the nation.
But on this Sunday, a dozen of the group's 300 or so members walked proudly through the streets of San Francisco, celebrating along with thousands of others the historic California Supreme Court ruling May 15 that legalized same-sex marriage in the state.
A Native woman and her lesbian partner were among the first to marry in Oakland shortly after the ruling took effect in the state, beginning at 5:01 p.m. June 16.
''It's about time,'' said Joan Benoit, executive director of the Native American AIDS Project and a member of the Chippewa of the Thames First Nation.
Benoit was among the six people chosen this year by the pride committee as a community grand marshal because of her ''years of service and activism'' on behalf of the Native and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities.
She sat atop the back of a convertible Firebird, waving at the crowd and holding a fan of eagle feathers.
Times are changing, she said. A recent field poll showed that a majority of Californians support same-sex marriage for the first time in three decades of polling.
And Benoit is confident that a constitutional amendment on the Nov. 4 ballot - which, if passed, would ban same-sex marriage in the state - will be defeated by voters because more people are realizing ''it's a human right,'' she said.
But challenges remain for Natives across the country who identify as two-spirit, a term that refers to a belief that there are people who manifest both masculine and feminine spiritual qualities.
According to researcher Will Roscoe, former coordinator of the Gay American Indians History Project, there is no single belief about two-spirits; they may be respected in one tribe and ostracized in another, while the topic of sexuality could be ignored altogether in another tribe.
But many tribes once revered two-spirits, viewing them as a third gender with a special spiritual connectedness. In these tribes, two-spirits filled important tribal roles as counselors, storytellers and healers, Benoit said.
Those are roles that some traditional leaders, including one 70-year-old who marched with the BAAITS group, are again embracing, Benoit said.
But although similar nonprofits exist in states like Oklahoma, Colorado and Minnesota, it remains tough for some Natives to come out, she said.
In many places, traditional beliefs about two-spirits were replaced by Judeo-Christian views of homosexuality as sinful. And even as those beliefs are evolving within many religious institutions, two-spirit Natives remain mostly invisible, Benoit said.
''PSAs about HIV never have a Native face on them,'' she said. ''But in our community, 30 percent of two-spirits in the country are HIV-positive.''
A transgender performer is among the more popular members of the Pima Tribe in southern California. But more often, when a two-spirit member of a tribe comes out, they're ostracized, said Navajo Marlene Frank, 46.
When Frank would go home to Arizona with her former partner of 25 years, she faced opposition and wisecracks, she said. Both of their families eventually accepted them, but ''it's still tough,'' Frank said.
Paiute Gabriel Duncan, 22, also experienced prejudice and taunts, but from peers at school. He was adopted at birth by a white couple in Alameda who supported him when he came out at age 12.
He felt welcomed by a mostly white gay and lesbian youth group, and later found balance within BAAITS, which better addressed his identity as a gay Native man.
Now a writer and poet, he applauded the state Supreme Court ruling as ''self-evident'' at the pride festival after the parade and said it was proof that the state and the country are shifting to a ''new way of thinking.''
It's still tough to be young, two-spirit and Native, Duncan said, but ''it's getting better.''
Now all that remains, he said, is to defeat the same-sex marriage ban on the Nov. 4 ballot and to pass the Matthew Shepard Act - a proposed bill that would strengthen existing federal hate crime law.
The act is named for a gay 21-year-old student in Wyoming who was tortured and murdered in 1998 in a hate crime.