Friendliness Key to the Gay Marriage Debate?

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MISSOURI - Is friendship possible on the frontlines of culture wars surrounding issues like homosexuality and same-sex marriage?

Gay activist John Corvino and Focus on the Family staffer Glen Stanton are currently testing that theory.

Their laboratory: public debates on college campuses.

For the last six years, Corvino and Stanton have traveled across the country for one purpose-- to fight passionately in front of large crowds. The two obviously have varying opinions when it comes to certain issues.

"A gay relationship like a straight relationship can be an important avenue of meaning and fulfillment in people's lives," Corvino said at one debate.

"It's not about who he chooses or who any of us choose," Stanton countered. "It's about going back to what I said before--how the state, how we as a people, define marriage."

Keeping Debate Productive

So what is it that keeps the two on the road year in and year out? It has to do with a deep conviction about the importance of civil debate, especially on the issue of gay marriage.

"A vibrant democracy runs on debate," Stanton explained. "You look at the Lincoln-Douglass debates. They happened for hours, days at time. Now, we just trade sound bites back and forth."

Corvino teaches philosophy at Detroit's Wayne State University, prides himself on his Italian heritage and lives with his partner of seven years.

Stanton is a research fellow at the conservative group Focus on the Family and lives in Colorado Springs with his wife and five children.

Onstage, they're tough competitors.

Corvino argues that gay marriage promotes stable relationships and serves society well while Stanton holds that gender matters and that men and women need each other and kids need a mom and a dad.

They usually take their civil debate to a key battlefield, college campuses across the country.

"The fact is, Glenn's views are the majority in most states and if we want that change, if I want to change the status quo, I have to make the case," Corvino said. "I have to engage the other side."

Playing By the Rules

Their "fighting rules" are starkly different from most bouts on gay issues. Words like hate and bigot are forbidden.

"They're conversation stoppers," Corvino explained. "Once I call Glenn or anybody a bigot, I'm saying 'your views are so beyond the pale. You're not somebody I should dignify with further discussion.'"

This attempt to avoid the cheap shot is new for many students, and helps them to focus on the issues.

"All the time, people will come up, you can see a kind of sheepish look on their face and they say 'I don't agree with anything you said but I think you articulated it well and you gave me a lot to think about,'" Stanton added.

But what's even more surprising for many students is the news that Corvino and Stanton are friends.

This unusual friendship was birthed on the road with countless hours spent driving from one university town to another and stops along the way for food and a little downtime. In between, there's ongoing email and phone calls.

"When it was announced that I got tenure at my university Glenn was the first person to call up and say congratulations," Corvino recalled.

Keeping the Message Alive

As with many friendships, there's is a work in progress and perhaps, more complicated than most.

In many respects, Stanton and Corvino are trailblazers, fine-tuning a civil debate on one of the most divisive issues of our times, and showing a multitude of cynics that friendship is possible.

"Since when did we develop the rule that you can't hang out with people you disagree with?" Stanton pointed out.

This agreement to disagree both publicly and privately takes a certain resilience, but it also seems to energize the two.

So, how long will this one-of-a-kind debate team go on?

The pair told CBN News just how they'll know when they are done.

"I'd like the end goal to be we have same-sex legal marriage and we're done," Corvino said.

"My end point," Stanton jests, "is when John has a wife and five kids in the suburbs and then I'm done."

It's a line that brings laughter to both -- and demonstrates the humor that helps to keep these two together.

*Originally aired March 13, 2009.

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Heather Sells

Heather Sells

CBN News Reporter

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