When Senators Barack Obama and John McCain face off in Oxford, Mississippi Friday, gay activists won't be far away. Gay groups and allies are organizing forums, workshops and demonstrations on issues important to gay and lesbian voters at the first presidential debate.

One of the most visible groups attending is the coalition of civil rights and religious leaders called the Campaign to End AIDS.

Eight caravans of protesters from all corners of the country have been making their way to Oxford to protest the absence of a comprehensive national strategy to end AIDS.

“We have no national AIDS strategy plan,” said Campaign to End AIDS Spokeswoman Alice Leeds. “This country has supported and given money to countries all over the world to establish their own national AIDS plan, but we have none of our own.”

James Meredith, who was the first African-American student to attend the University of Mississippi, has led marchers across 172 miles from Jackson to Oxford. Meredith is best know for a 1966 Memphis-to-Jackson march to protest racism – March Against Fear – where he was to walk alone for 220 miles, but was injured by a sniper shot. Martin Luther King and other prominent leaders marched in his place, and as the news spread, so did the protest; the crowd had grown to 15,000 when it arrived at Jackson.

Meredith, a longtime champion of civil rights, has now taken up the cause of AIDS in America.

“The AIDS problem is what it is because of the condition of the poor, and the responsibility [the rich shirk] to give to the poor,” Meredith told the Jackson Free Press. “When they give anything, they think it's a gift. You understand? But that absolutely ain't the way Christ meant it. It was an absolute responsibility. That's the message God called me to deliver; and that's what I'm going to do with the rest of my life.”

The campaign says it hopes its caravan of protesters will bring the issue of the absence of a national strategy on AIDS to the fore of the debate.

“We've got to push the envelope, we got to make sure that people with HIV/AIDS are heard,” Housing Works VP of National Advocacy and Organizing Christine Campbell told On Top Magazine. “We believe we can end this thing. We believe what we are missing is the political will to make it happen.”

The University of Mississippi's Gay Straight Alliance has organized a town hall forum to address gay and lesbian issues that relate to the 2008 election. Titled Our Rights as Citizens and Humans, the forum will include seven national gay and lesbian organizations, including the ACLU, GLAAD, GLSEN, HRC, Lambda Legal, SLDN and NBJC.

“Our Town Hall is a dramatic and historic opportunity to educate our student populace about numerous LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] issues at once,” said Gay Straight Alliance Vice President Jamie Carter.

The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), a pro-gay group dedicated to ending anti-gay discrimination in the armed forces, is organizing an additional workshop that looks at ending Clinton's “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” policy that bars gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military.

Retired Rear Admiral James Barnett, a native of Mississippi and University of Mississippi Alumnus, along with SLDN Executive Director Aubrey Sarvis, will lead the workshop in discussing the legislative opportunities available to repeal the anti-gay policy.

“I look forward to the upcoming forum and workshop as an opportunity to educate the public about the failure of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' and ensure that this important issue remains part of the national debate in this year's election,” Sarvis said in a statement. “Voters need to understand how this ban has undermined our military's readiness in a time of war. More than 12,500 [gay and lesbian] well-qualified service members have been fired under this bad law while our military is already stretched too thin and the need for an effective force grows greater by the day.”

Openly gay Army Sargent Darren Manzela, whose recent military discharge came after he openly declared he's gay on CBS's 60 Minutes, will also be attending the workshop.

Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) Director of Communications Steve Ralls said his organization will also be present at the town hall meeting.