A response to Lord Tebbit, on the subject of gay marriage and lesbian queens

Lesbian Queen? Mary II, who seems to have had an intimate relationship with Frances Apsley
Lesbian Queen? Mary II, who seems to have had an intimate relationship with Frances Apsley

The internet is having one of its periodic spasms of outrage-hilarity over some comments my colleague Lord Tebbit made to The Guardian this morning. On the subject of gay marriage, he said:

When we have a queen who is a lesbian and she marries another lady and then decides she would like to have a child and someone donates sperm and she gives birth to a child, is that child heir to the throne?…

…It’s like one of my colleagues said: we’ve got to make these same sex marriages available to all. It would lift my worries about inheritance tax because maybe I’d be allowed to marry my son. Why not? Why shouldn’t a mother marry her daughter? Why shouldn’t two elderly sisters living together marry each other?

Neither of these are new claims: Tebbit himself raised the first one in a fantastic interview with Allison Pearson in this paper a few weeks ago. The other one has been made by various people, including Nadine Dorries and our own Charles Moore.

It’s worth addressing these points, because other people have been concerned about them, and we ought to take them seriously.

First, if a queen has a child by sperm donor, would that child be the heir to the throne? I don’t know. Adopted children can’t inherit aristocratic titles; children born out of wedlock can’t be king, I don’t think. The biological father of the child wouldn’t be the legal parent. So perhaps, constitutional scholars might say, it couldn’t be monarch.

But I don’t really see what the problem is. Either it is or it isn’t. The monarchy has dealt with the problem of “illegitimate” children before, and we don’t panic about the constitutional implications of adoption. Pick one: either the child is heir or it isn’t. The problem is thus solved. Move on.

The mother-marrying-her-daughter thing is a bit odd, and has been attracting the more unkind comments on the web. But here, I think, is what the concern is. People are worried that the problems of “taking sex out of the definition of marriage”: under the new law, adultery with a person of the same sex will not be grounds for divorce, and non-consummation of the marriage will not be grounds for annulment.

I find this a bit baffling, as it suggests that a married man could do anything he liked with a woman who wasn’t his wife, as long as it wasn’t vaginal sex, and his wife would have no grounds for divorce. If the lawmakers are really so incompetent that they couldn’t get around that, then we have bigger worries.

The implication, though, for Lord Tebbit and for Nadine Dorries, is that the link between sex and marriage has been removed. And once that’s gone, they say, why shouldn’t marriage mean any old link?

For what it’s worth, I think Allison had it right in her interview with Lord Tebbit, that as good-hearted and sharp-minded as he undoubtedly is (I can vouch for that, if that helps), “When it comes to homosexuality, it feels like he is trumping up a set of practical objections to justify an instinctive aversion.”

But again, let’s take the worries seriously. We’ve already redefined marriage once, goes the argument: what’s going to stop us from redefining it again? If a group of dads concerned about inheritance tax demands the right to marry their sons, what argument will we use to say that’s not OK?

Let’s be honest: we haven’t got one. If a popular movement sweeps the nation, calling for the legalisation of parent-child marriage, I would have no leg to stand on beyond my own personal aversion: that is, by and large, how democratic society works. But I am prepared to bet that, because (at least partly for evolutionary reasons) the vast majority of us are repelled at the idea of parent-child marriage, the British Marry Your Kids movement will not take off. Bear in mind that (according to David Skelton in this paper) popular support for gay marriage is over 60 per cent now, and it’s still been a struggle to get it through Parliament. If you can find me one per cent of the population who want to marry their parents/children (or dogs, or lamp-posts, or the Shard), I’ll be pretty surprised. It’s really not going to happen.

A few people will say “But so what? Logically speaking, you have to make parent-child marriage legal because you’ve made gay marriage legal,” to which I can only say: no we don’t. Watch us.

My own grandpa, who I hope won’t mind me writing about him, is a few years older than Lord Tebbit and recently had an argument with one of my uncles about this. My uncle thinks, as I do, that it’s no business of his if gay people want to get married; my grandpa, a thoroughly liberal and decent man (and lifelong Telegraph reader) who has no problem with gay men at all, thought, with many of our readers, that the word “marriage” had a specific meaning.

Perhaps it did. But that meaning seems to be changing, as words’ meanings do. My grandpa has, I think, reconsidered his position; Lord Tebbit has not, and that’s fine. Both the word and the law are changing because popular opinion is changing. Concerns over lesbian queens and dad-son marriages are not, I’m afraid, going to change that fact.

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