The Odd Couple

First published at Between the Lines News on December 18, 2008

Glenn Stanton is a friend of mine. He’s also badly wrong about same-sex marriage, and I tell him so—frequently, publicly, and sharply.

Glenn works at Focus on the Family, a premier organization of the religious right. He and I regularly debate same-sex marriage at campuses around the country.

Glenn has written about our relationship in the January issue of Christianity Today (available here:, where he describes us as “highly unlikely but dear friends.” It’s a good description.

“Unlikely,” because Glenn is not just wrong, but wrong about an issue that’s deeply personal for me. His work hurts my people. Nevertheless, we’re probably closer than you think.

Glenn was the first person to call to congratulate me when I received tenure at my university. While traveling, we share our “down time” in spirited conversation about politics, family relationships, work challenges, and so on. We often joke with each other.

I’m sure that more than one waiter, observing us out for a post-debate snack, have wondered whether we are business partners or boyfriends. If they were to eavesdrop, they’d know: when Glenn takes a call from his wife Jackie, I always say “hi”; he does the same for my partner Mark (whom he graciously describes in the article as “the kind of man many fathers would want their daughters to meet”).

How can I be friendly with a card-carrying member of the religious right? My facetious answer: I drink. My serious answer: it’s a complex and sometimes tense relationship, but it works for us.

Gay people should know better than anyone that personal affection doesn’t always conform to socially expected patterns. Yes, he’s a right-winger, but I genuinely like the guy.

And I don’t merely like him in spite of his professional mission. Alongside our differences, Glenn and I have a shared mission as well. We believe that serious subjects deserve a thoughtful public dialogue, not soundbites and personal attacks. We want to promote by example a better conversation.

Some people wonder how we can debate the same issue over and over without our events becoming scripted or phony. Good question.

First, this is a multi-faceted issue, and there’s always something new to talk about. Second, much of our program consists of audience Q&A—an element that changes each time.

Third, knowing each other’s fundamental position allows us continually to hone our presentations, cutting right to the heart of the matter. We don’t spend lots of time trying to figure out where each other is coming from—although we still have misunderstandings, which we aim to use constructively.

Why do we debate? It’s not so that we can ambush each other with unexpected zingers (although we keep trying). It’s not even to convince each other—although I’d like to think, in the years we’ve been doing this, I’ve had some positive effect on him, and thus on Focus.

We do debates to convince our audiences. He wants them to oppose same-sex marriage, I want them to support it, and we both want them to talk about it, civilly but nonetheless rigorously.

Do I worry that our mutual graciousness makes it too easy for him to feel “open-minded” and “tolerant” while maintaining an anti-gay stance? I would, were it not for the fact that I remind him regularly of how wrong and hurtful that stance is. In my view, such reminders have more weight coming from a sincere friend than a hostile enemy.

We don’t pull punches. As Glenn writes, “We have no interest in maintaining a lowest-common-denominator, kumbaya civility.” At times we genuinely annoy each other. If we think the other is being disingenuous or unfair, we say so.

We also occasionally surprise each other. Glenn recounts some of these moments in his article, but he misses my favorite. One day when we were driving back from an event, I told Glenn that Mark and I had decided to exchange vows in a commitment ceremony.

He said “Congratulations.” I nearly swerved off the road.

That led to a long, challenging, and emotional conversation about how to appreciate others’ values even while sharply disagreeing with key aspects of them.

Glenn made it clear that he disapproves of “homosexual conduct.” And I made it clear that my partnership with Mark is not just an ordinary friendship with romantic intimacy added on as an optional, freestanding feature. Our so-called “homosexual conduct” is integral to the relationship.

I think Glenn sees my point, though I’m not sure he’s fully resolved the dilemma it poses.

Then again, I’m not sure I’ve fully resolved the dilemma of how to cherish Glenn without endorsing problematic aspects of his personal and professional goals.

It’s a friendship in process, and I’m grateful for it.