ST. PETERSBURG — It may surprise many people that John Corvino and Glen Stanton are friends. Corvino is a gay professor. Stanton is a proud member of the religious right.
Yet this odd couple has toured the country for about four years debating the pros and cons of same-sex marriage.
Waiting in airports, they will often pass the time guessing which passer-by "plays" for each "team."
The two brought a lively two-hour discussion to about 40 people at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus last week. Though billed as a debate on same-sex marriage, the focus became same-sex parenthood.
"The debate is whether extending (civil marriages) would overall help society or hurt society," said Corvino, an associate professor of philosophy at Wayne State University.
Largely left untouched was the controversial state constitutional amendment that would define marriage as strictly between a man and a woman. Florida residents will vote on that in November, although a state law already defines marriage that way. Named the "Marriage Protection Amendment," the proposal states that "no other legal union treated as marriage or the substantial equivalent thereof shall be valid or recognized."
Domestic partnerships between heterosexuals could be hurt, said Steve Shields, who works for Hillsborough Community College and attended the event.
"Will there be backlash from the general populace when benefits are taken away?" Shields said. "What's the fairness of it?"
Corvino argued that there is a "net gain" for society in promoting stable and happy relationships through same-sex marriages, especially for children who would otherwise lack a loving family environment. He repeatedly stressed that "these kids matter" and that allowing gay marriages won't "make anyone gay."
Stanton, of Focus on the Family, answered that he equates same-sex marriages with same-sex families, an "experiment" that troubles him because the effects of raising children in gay households has not been widely studied. He said he believes that a family that doesn't draw from both genders "isn't the same type of family."
"I think people have the right to do things we don't agree with, but ultimately, men and women need each other,'' Stanton said. "Culturally they do."
To this, Corvino laughed, raised his hand and said, "I don't!"
"Whatever course we take, it's going to have consequences for people in relationships and for children," he said.
Most of the questions that followed the debate were directed at Stanton, and tensions flared when one man called him a "closet case."
Another accused Stanton of being a bigot who was trying to take away his civil liberties. That began a heated exchange that drew audible gasps from the crowd.
Corvino swiftly came to Stanton's defense.
"I want to make it clear: I think Glen is wrong, but we get along and we respect each other," Corvino said. "Whatever your position is in this debate, there are decent, caring people who disagree with you."