Equality Matters

Debunking FoF Glenn Stanton’s Attack On Gay Parenting Study

March 21, 2012 5:37 pm ET - by Carlos Maza

Anti-gay groups are excited about a new Focus on the Family (FoF) brief that purports to debunk a popular study demonstrating the effectiveness of same-sex parenting. The brief, written by FoF’s Glenn T. Stanton, criticizes the U.S. National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study (NLLFS) – “the longest-running and largest prospective investigation of lesbian mothers and their children in the Unites States.”  According to Stanton, the NLLFS is “an orchestrated persuasion piece conducted and funded by gay-rights activists” and suffers from major methodological flaws.

A closer look at his critique, though, reveals just how desperate anti-gay groups are to attack studies about gay parenting that don’t affirm their talking points.

Stanton: Study’s Authors Are Biased Activists

Stanton devotes much of his criticism of the NLLFS to pointing out the obvious – that the study was funded and conducted by groups and individuals interested in advancing LGBT equality. Stanton specifically criticizes the NLLFS’s “investigators” for specializing in LGBT studies and research:

Their professional research has been solely in the field of lesbian research. Examine the bibliographies offered in each of their published studies to date. They offer the reader no survey of the vast literature on how various family forms impact child development and well-being in varying degrees. They consult - nearly exclusively - only published studies that examine gay or lesbian issues.

Stanton also goes to great lengths to depict one of the study’s authors, Dr. Nanette Gartrell, as an “out of the mainstream” radical.

He fails to mention that Dr. Gartrell was educated at some of the nation's leading universities - Stanford, University of California, and Harvard. He also failed to mention that in her 35-year professional career she served on the medical school faculties of Harvard and UCSF, and that her published research focuses on a variety of topics including sexual exploitation of patients by health professionals.    

Of course, none of this has anything to do with whether the NLLFS actually presents reliable information on the topic of same-sex parenting. Stanton even admits that his criticisms of the study’s authors amount to little more than an ad hominem:

But the facts that NLLFS is initiated and conducted by lesbian activists, funded by foundations backing GLBT activism and that the Principle Investigator is outside the mainstream of the lesbian community do not mean the study is not a reputable academic investigation. It only lets us know who’s behind it and their possible motivations.

What matters is the structure, execution and reporting of the study itself.

According to Dr. Gartrell, many of the researchers involved in the study are heterosexual.

Moreover, Stanton fails to mention his own “motivations” for criticizing the NLLFS. FoF’s website displays an article in which Stanton condemns homosexuality as “a particularly evil lie of Satan” which “profoundly and thoroughly” challenges the image of the “Triune God.”

Stanton: Study’s Sample Was Too Small, Not Representative

Stanton criticizes the study’s small sample size – a relatively common limitation for studies on gays and lesbians, and especially a 26-year study which was started in the 1980s:

The problems with the study’s sample are clear to even the casual reader. First, the data for the NLLFS was collected on a relatively small group: initially 84 lesbian families and (currently) 78 children (39 girls and 39 boys).


So these are highly motivated lesbian mothers, gathered through what researchers call snowball or convenience samples via the political lesbian culture, they are told the nature of the study – allowing each respondent to easily ascertain the social, political and academic importance of the effort – and all interested callers volunteered and were adopted into the study. It begs considering whether these realities have any impact on the fact that the study has maintained a remarkable 93% retention rate over its fifteen year history.

Stanton quotes two sociologists – Mark Regnerus and W. Bradford Wilcox – who echoed his concerns about the NLLFS’s sample size.

In reality, however, this kind of sample size is typical of developmental psychology studies, especially when dealing with complex issues like same-sex parenting. According to Dr. Michael Lamb, Head of the Department of Social and Developmental Psychology at Cambridge University:

Developmental psychologists (and psychologists more generally) tend to emphasize intensive examination of relatively small numbers of individuals, often studied in the context of social relationships and influences. Developmental psychologists rarely use research methods based on statistically representative national samples.  Such large-scale survey research methods are often too blunt to address adequately the complex and nuanced questions that generally are at issue when scholars attempt to assess and compare the course of development in different circumstances.  It is more common for researchers to use what might be called “convenience” samples, and to explore those samples intensively, rather than to study large samples more superficially.

The methodologies used in the major studies of same-sex parenting meet the standards for research in the field of developmental psychology and psychology generally.  Proper research methods and standards in social sciences are determined through a rigorous peer review process that is conducted by established scholars in individual disciplines and sub-fields.  When scholarly papers are submitted for publication, the research methods used, the analyses conducted, and the findings drawn are critically reviewed.  In order to be published, an academic’s work must satisfy the scrutiny and standards of scholars considered to be experts in the field of research under review. [emphasis added]

Stanton also criticized the NLLFS for relying on self-reporting from the mothers in the study, which he claimed can result in “answers that align with their convictions, rather than their actual behavior or outcomes.” However, a recent version of the NLLFS includes data provided directly from the adolescent offspring of the study’s participants, gathered through online questionnaires completed at ages 10 and 17. In addition, a careful reading of the study's many publications reveals that the participating mothers freely shared their struggles and hardships, along with their successes and joys.

Stanton: Study Contradicts Social Science On Family Structure

Stanton continues his critique by attempting to raise questions about NLLFS’ “very curious findings,” asserting that they “run strongly contrary to reason and the larger body of sociological and psychological literature on family form and child well-being”:

This means that – according this study – adolescents with lesbian moms did better in important measures of well-being than children in the general population. 


However, this flies in the face of over four decades and hundreds of published studies indicating that fathers play an irreplaceable role in fostering healthy child-development in ways that mothers do not. And it has been demonstrated consistently that children who grow up apart from their fathers face serious difficulties and short-comings compared to children raised by their mother and father.

To illustrate his point, Stanton cites two sources: an article about “The Importance of Father Love” and a book titled Life Without Father. As is typical of evidence used by anti-gay authors, both sources focus on comparing single-parents households to households in which fathers and mothers are actively involved in raising children. Neither source analyzes gay couples or households led by same-sex parents.

Stanton also fails to mention the ever-growing mountain of research that consistently demonstrates that same-sex parents can raise children as effectively as heterosexual parents.

Finally, Stanton is skeptical about the study’s findings that children raised by separated lesbian couples don’t face negative consequences. Rather than pointing to a specific flaw with the study’s methodology, however, Stanton again resorts to accusing the lesbian mothers of being dishonest in their answers about their children’s development:

We could question whether these particular lesbian mothers – drafted very selectively through their deep commitment to lesbian culture and causes, knowing they are participating in the important US National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study and allowed to self-report how well their children did – can offer the kind of careful, objective data-reporting a study like this should be built upon.

It’s worth nothing that at no point during his response does Stanton actually provide evidence that same-sex couples can’t raise children effectively. He accuses the study’s authors of bias, cites research about heterosexual couples and single parents, and points out limitations in the NLLFS’s methodology, but at no point does he actually refute any of the study’s findings.

Despite pages of complaints about the NLLFS, Stanton fails to complete the one task he set out to accomplish: debunking the study.


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