With a heavy heart and no enthusiasm, I feel driven by events to write again on gay marriage. Was there ever a measure in which the outrage and enthusiasm were more disproportionate to the harmless nature of what's proposed? I shan't repeat the reasons I've always favoured having a legal form of civil gay marriage. Here, though, I want to defend my opponents – those opposed to gay marriage (as I have tried to do quite frequently through this debate). Here I want to think about two issues of nature: marriage-as-relationship-in-nature versus marriage-as-recognised-by-law; and the natural inclination of parents to desire grandchildren.
First, to even begin to understand this debate and the sentiments of opponents of gay marriage, I believe it is vital to distinguish between two things: a "marriage" as a relationship in nature; and a "marriage" as recognised by law. This distinction is almost never acknowledged by proponents of gay marriage, and their failure to acknowledge this distinction stirs up great and unnecessary antagonism.
What do I mean by a "relationship in nature"? Consider the concept of a "friendship". Being friends is not something that requires any legal recognition. Instead friendship exists "naturally" (i.e. in nature, not law). People are naturally friends or not friends. Again, think of "promises". People can make promises with each other regardless of legal status. Or think of being a "mother". There is such a thing as being a natural mother regardless of legal status.
A marriage is a relationship like that – a relationship in nature, not in law. Just as, regardless of whether the law said you hadn't made a promise, or weren't friends, or weren't a mother, if in nature you were these things you would be these things regardless of the law, so you can be married-in-nature even if the law denies that you are. Conversely, even if the law says that you did make a promise (e.g. if the law upholds a contract) or were friends or were a mother or were married, that could be true in law but false in nature.
English law has long refused to recognise large numbers of marriages-in-nature (before 1753, for example, the vast majority of those currently termed "cohabitees" would have been recognised in law as married, as they are indeed married in nature). And it has long recognised many marriages-in-law that many people would deny were marriages-in-nature (e.g. re-marriages of divorcees). Furthermore, the duties and protections the state upholds/protects have long deviated very considerably from what were traditionally regarded as the natural duties, obligations and protections of marriage.
Consequently, it will no more be the case that once there are gay marriages in law everyone will accept these as marriages-in-nature than it is the case that since there are re-marriages of divorcees everyone accepts those as marriages-in-nature. And there is no good reason they should do so, because the debate about what the law should or should not recognise as a marriage, and what the state means by a "marriage" has long been decoupled from the debate about what the relationship-in-nature of marriage is.
So we shall have gay marriages in law. And folk will be entitled to (and will) say: "Ah – but they're not really married", just as they say that of re-married divorcees today. Those that imagine gay marriage as a kind of Newspeak method to deprive opponents of homosexuality a language in which to express their beliefs will be disappointed.
Second, a furore has erupted today over the remarks of David Davies MP that "most parents would prefer their children not to be gay, knowing most parents want grandchildren if nothing else". Let's focus on just these comments in isolation, so we don't pollute our reaction to them by our sympathy or antipathy towards his stance on gay marriage in general. The first thing to note is that what he says is surely obviously true. Most parents want grandchildren, and as a consequence hope that their own children will settle down with a member of the opposite sex, forming a sufficiently stable household that they feel able to have children. If you try to set aside what you anticipate as the implications of that, or your views on whether it is right or wrong that parents have such preferences, you will quickly see that it is obviously true.
The Telegraph article on this topic headlined with "Most parents don't want gay children". That could be read as "Most parents would want not to have their children if they are gay" or even "Most parents would want to part with their children if they are gay". So it's an unfortunately misleading headline – as headlines often are. A Sikh mother might want her son to become a doctor and marry a nice Sikh girl, but that doesn't automatically mean she would reject him if he became a rock singer and drifted from one sexual partner to the next. A father might prefer his daughter to eat meat, if only for cooking convenience, but that doesn't mean he would reject her if she became a vegetarian. Parents hope for alll kinds of things for and from their children, but that doesn't mean they reject those children if things turn out otherwise.
Most parents want grandchildren. That is an entirely natural sentiment. It isn't wrong for parents to want that. Indeed, I think it is perfectly plausible (even likely) that there is some duty upon children to have children for their own parents' sake. Now that's a duty that could be overmatched by other duties – e.g. the duty to fight and die in a war; the duty to become a priest; etc.. But I suspect it is a real familial/dynastic duty – one that our modern individualistic age has forgotten.
And what they want is blood grandchildren. That's not wrong, either. That doesn't mean they would reject adopted grandchildren. But wanting children and grandchildren of your own body is amongst the most basic and unchallengeable of human sentiments. So saying: "Homosexual couples could adopt" is entirely beside the point.
Those of homosexual orientation could, of course, marry members of the opposite sex and produce grandchildren for their parents – as indeed many do. But that's not what David Davies meant by "gay" – he'll have meant the case in which one's children eschew members of the opposite sex. To be sure, a small number of gay couples will produce grandchildren via artificial insemination. But the vast majority won't do that. If you want grandchildren of your own bloodline, you implicitly hope that not all of your children become practicing homosexuals or devotees of a life of celibacy. It’s not “anti-gay” for parents to want that any more than it’s “anti-monk”. That's just the way things are, and getting outraged about it is plain silly.
I think David Davies is wrong to see any connection between the desire to have grandchildren and the question of whether there should be a legal form of gay marriage. Those seem totally separate questions to me. Disagree with him vigorously about that, by all means. But he's not wrong to say parents hope to have grandchildren. That an MP saying parents hope to have grandchildren – and spelling out what are obviously the implications of that in terms of the sexuality of one's children – has become a source of outrage and controversy is an indication of how confused our thinking about these matters has become.