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Elizabeth Birch (L) and Robert H. Knight exchanged views last week on gay marriage, at Kent State. ‘‘The implications of our disagreement are profound,’’ Birch said after the forum. (Getty Images Photos)

Sparring, bonding mark a debate on gay marriage

(Correction: Because of an editing error, a story in last Sunday's Globe about a poll measuring support for gay marriage incorrectly reported the findings among Catholics in Massachusetts. The poll by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center found that Catholics supported allowing gay marriage to be legalized by a margin of 49-44 percent.)

KENT, Ohio -- Under the fluorescent glare of Kent State University's food court, Elizabeth Birch was sharing photos of her 6-year-old twins with a man who, she said, ''wants to eradicate" her whole life.

The man, Robert H. Knight, 53, and his wife, Barbara, gushed and cooed with delight as they examined the mops of curls framing the twins' faces.

Swapping family news has become part of a ritual on nights like this, a kind of odd-couple bonding before the sparring match begins between Birch, a leading lesbian activist, and Knight, a vocal opponent of what he calls ''the homosexual agenda."

''I really like Elizabeth," Knight said with effusion. He added that he prides himself on separating sinner from sin.

Birch and Knight -- both creatures of Washington's interest-group politics, and each collecting fees from the same booking agent -- are increasingly popular visitors on college campuses, as they square off over one of the most profound social changes of the times: same-sex marriage.

Over the past year, they have drawn crowds at halls ranging from Cornell University to the University of Central Oklahoma.

Along the way, they seem to be trying to cross the yawning divide between their two worlds.

Theirs is a struggle that mirrors a country in which evangelical church attendance is high, as are ratings for gay-themed television shows like ''Will & Grace."

The intimate nature of the policy debate over same-sex marriage extends even to the farthest poles of the political spectrum: to Christian evangelicals such as Knight , who have gay friends or family members, and to gay-rights activists such as Birch, whose friends include religious fundamentalists.

But if the Birch-Knight relationship can be called a friendship, each perceives the relationship differently.

To Knight, she's Elizabeth, choosing to call her by her first name in debates. Knight considers Birch, 48, a friend, and his face lights up at the mention of her name. ''I hope she likes me as much as I like her," he said.

To Birch, he's Mr. Knight, a type, a reminder of the evangelicals she knew growing up in Canada who, she says, still can't reconcile their religious views with their affection for individual gays. She considers engagement with Knight a way to maintain a pipeline to the Christian evangelical world; she's convinced that many young gays and lesbians are trapped in the closet in that world.

''I think he's sincere, but the implications of our disagreement are so profound for me," Birch said. ''For him, it's just part of his work."

On Wednesday night, after Birch finished her soup and Knight took a last bite of his tuna sandwich, the two walked through a chilly outdoor corridor toward Kent State's stage and through a crowd of about 300 people, overwhelmingly hostile to Knight. Home to the infamous 1970 Kent State shootings -- in which four students were killed when National Guardsmen opened fire on antiwar demonstrators -- the Ohio university still leans to the liberal side.

And on this night, university students in the audience were matched by older activists from gay rights and leftist groups.

As Knight spoke, , the moderator repeatedly had to step in to remind the audience to stop the booing and catcalls and outbursts such as: ''This guy's psycho."

''I understand that passions run high, having been a liberal college student myself," Knight said later. ''But this was rough."

Once a student protester against the Vietnam War, Knight was turned off by what he called the left's ''hatred of America." His continued drift to the right was propelled both by faith -- he and his wife say they were born again in 1986 -- and, he said, a frustration with the intolerance of leftists.

But even in a friendlier setting, Knight faces a formidable opponent in Birch, a former executive director of the Human Rights Campaign and a former litigation director for Apple Computer Corp. In debates on same-sex marriage, Birch cut her teeth taking on high-profile conservatives like the commentator and former presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan. She's a humorous and effusive stage veteran.

''Even if [homosexuality] is a sin, it didn't make the top ten," she quipped, in a reference to Moses's tablet. The audience roared.

By contrast, Knight, a former editor at the Los Angeles Times who now oversees family issues for an arm of Concerned Women for America, stood behind the podium, reading notes meant to convey his heartfelt concerns, both for gay friends and for the survival of the traditional family. His jokes fell flat, not surprising, he later said, , since humor works only ''if the audience likes you."

His wife, Barbara, sat in the front row, ready to catch his eye and lend emotional support when the heat turned up. Birch called Barbara Knight ''an extraordinary woman, a healer," who has smoothed over some tense moments between the two debaters. ''I credit her for us being civil to each other," Birch said.

Knight's case against same-sex marriage rests on the historic centrality of male-female marriage in religion and civilization and a recognition that human survival depends on producing children. He worries about psychological damage to children in lesbian households who don't have fathers in their lives and, conversely, the absence of mothers in families headed by two men.

He also condemns gay sex as immoral and physically unhealthy. And he makes the case that ''no one is born gay," that sexual orientation is a choice that can be reversed.

But because this is a policy debate that is, at its root, about personal relationships, Knight centers his case on friends in his own life who, he says, ''are probably gay." Calling them by the fictious names Mac and Albert, he says he has never discussed the matter with them because ''they respect my family's belief."

''I worry a lot about my friends, Mac and Albert," Knight told his audience at Kent State. ''I'm well aware of the health risks they may be taking. I worry also about their eternal souls. God loves them as much as anyone else, and I really resent people telling them otherwise. But I suspect Mac and Albert just want to be left alone, not to turn civilzation upside down to accomodate their unorthodox way of life."

Birch responded that Knight doesn't have a clue about the nature of true friendship. ''If friendship involves the deep sharing of the truths of one's life, including one's intimate, loving relationships, then Mac and Albert are not your friends," she said, casting a stern look across the stage at Knight. ''They are acquaintances who pass you in your life."

Knight considers this a kind of cheap shot that occasionally slips into a Birch performance. ''She's utterly off-base," he said. ''Our straight friends don't tell us about intimate sex lives."

Birch has her own experience in trying to maintain a friendship across the gay-straight divide. A friend from her youth is a Christian evangelical, and their relationship has strains. But, she insists, ''I would never say to her,' you cannot talk to me about your spirituality,' " Birch said. ''I love this woman as a friend."

Politically, Knight is to the right of President Bush, whom he calls the ''master of lowered expectations" on promises to ban same-sex marriage. But Birch's political views put her far to the left, as she rails against the rise of overtly religious political leaders, saying, ''We have never been so close to a theocracy in this nation."

With rapid-fire speed, Birch mocked Knight's arguments about homosexuality, noting that same-sex coupling has been found ''in every species around the world," that gays live in 99.4 percent of US counties and are parenting children in 94.7 percent of the counties. A Christian who also draws from Buddhism, Birch challenged Knight's interpretation of Scripture and wondered aloud why people like him are so worried about same-sex marriage when the nation faces war, poverty, and a host of other troubles.

In public opinion polls, people who are under 30 and who don't attend church are the most likely to embrace same-sex marriage, a fact facing Knight on every campus.

As the Kent State debate ended, Birch was surrounded by wellwishers. A handful of students approached Knight to apologize for the behavior of some in the audience. But as he made his way toward a reception of cookies and coffee, one young man aimed a finger gun at Knight's head.

''I've never seen it this bad," Knight's shaken wife said, as she ushered her husband up a flight of stairs.

Next month it's off to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and Knight intends to press on alongside the woman he calls his friend, despite the abuse.

''I figure there are some kids in each of those audiences who are hungry for the truth," he said.

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