Equality Matters

Experts Condemn Flawed Regnerus Study On Same-Sex Parenting

June 22, 2012 10:54 am ET

This month, anti-gay conservatives have been celebrating a new study which allegedly found that children raised by gay parents suffered a number of negative consequences. In reality, the study’s flawed methodology has been widely criticized by experts, columnists, and LGBT organizations across the country.

New Study Claims To Find Negative Outcomes For Children Raised By Gay Parents

ABC News: Study Finds That Children Raised By Gay Parents “Fare Worse Socially, Psychologically, And Physically” Than Children Raised By Married Heterosexual Parents. According a June 11 ABC News article:

A new study finds that adult children of parents in same-sex relationships fare worse socially, psychologically and physically than people raised in other family arrangements.

Critics call the study deeply flawed, saying the results don't accurately describe -- or even measure -- any children raised in stable households with two same-sex parents.

[...]

The study was published Sunday in the journal Social Science Research. It was funded by the Witherspoon Institute and the Bradley Foundation, groups that are "commonly known for their support of conservative causes," though the organizations played no role in the design and analysis of the report, the study said.

Mark Regnerus, an associate professor of sociology at the Universityof Texasat Austinand the author of the report, said the study was not intended as a political statement, but simply tried to answer the question of whether children of parents with same-sex relationships are different. He said the study also isn't designed to prove that family structure causes poor health. [ABC News, 6/11/12]

Conservatives Praise Study’s Findings, Methodology

NOM’s Maggie Gallagher: “Scientifically This Is Huge.” In a June 10 column for National Review Online, Maggie Gallagher, co-founder of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), wrote:

Professor Mark Regnerus, the author of the New Family Structures Survey project, has published a study that is not only the largest and most comprehensive, it is only the second study based on a probability sample. Scientifically this is huge. [National Review Online, 6/10/12]

Peter Sprigg: Regnerus Study Should Be Considered The “Gold Standard” When Examining Same-Sex Parenting. In an issue brief about the study, Family Research Council (FRC) Fellow Peter Sprigg wrote:

Unlike the many large studies previously undertaken on family structure, Regnerus has included specific comparisons with children raised by homosexual parents. Unlike the previous studies on children of homosexual parents, he has put together a representative, population-based sample that is large enough to draw scientifically and statistically valid conclusions. For these reasons, his "New Family Structures Study" (NFSS) deserves to be considered the "gold standard" in this field.

[...]

The articles by Marks and Regnerus have completely changed the playing field for debates about homosexual parents, "gay families," and same-sex "marriage." The myths that children of homosexual parents are "no different" from other children and suffer "no harm" from being raised by homosexual parents have been shattered forever. [Family Research Council, accessed 6/21/12]

Glenn Stanton: Unlike Previous Research, New Study Not “Plagued By Devastating Methodological Short-Comings.” According to Glenn Stanton, director for Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family:

Conducted by Professor Mark Regnerus (reg-nair-us), a leading sociologist from UT Austin, this study makes use of the largest, nationally representative sample, asking the broadest array of survey questions of children raised at some time of their childhood in gay- or lesbian-parented homes. Nearly all of the existing studies on same-sex homes are conducted, not by mainstream scholars, but those who have long records of lesbian/gay activism. Mark has no such record on either side of the issue. The existing studies are largely plagued by devastating methodological short-comings, rendering them incapable of reaching any reliable conclusions.

This is not true of Professor Regnerus’ study. His research methodology was reviewed pre-start by sociological and demographic peers from five different leading American universities. [RandyThomas.co, 6/13/12]

Experts, Commentators Condemn Regnerus Study For Flawed Methodology

Experts

APA: “There Is No Scientific Evidence That Parenting Effectiveness Is Related To Parental Sexual Orientation.” In a June 11 press release, the American Psychological Association (APA) affirmed that it opposes discrimination against same-sex parents:

On the basis of a remarkably consistent body of research on lesbian and gay parents and their children, the American Psychological Association (APA) and other health professional and scientific organizations have concluded that there is no scientific evidence that parenting effectiveness is related to parental sexual orientation. That is, lesbian and gay parents are as likely as heterosexual parents to provide supportive and healthy environments for their children. This body of research has shown that the adjustment, development and psychological well-being of children are unrelated to parental sexual orientation and that the children of lesbian and gay parents are as likely as those of heterosexual parents to flourish.

[...]

APA has continued to monitor the research since 2004 and report that research in our amicus briefs, such as in the Gill vs. OPM case. On the basis of the research, APA continues to oppose any discrimination based on sexual orientation in matters of adoption, child custody and visitation, foster care, and reproductive health services. [American Psychological Association, 6/11/12]

Nathaniel Frank: Study “Fails The Most Basic Requirement Of Social Science Research.” In an op-ed for the LA Times, Nathaniel Frank, visiting scholar atColumbiaLawSchool’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, wrote:

While Regnerus critiques "same-sex couples" raising kids, his study does not actually compare children raised by same-sex couples with those raised by different-sex couples. The criterion it uses is whether a parent "ever ha[d] a romantic relationship with someone of the same sex." In fact, only a small proportion of its sample spent more than a few years living in a household headed by a same-sex couple. Indeed, the study acknowledges that what it's really comparing with heterosexual families is not families headed by a same-sex couple but households in which parents broke up. "A failed heterosexual union," Regnerus writes in the study, "is clearly the modal method" — the most common characteristic for the group that he lumps in with same-sex-headed households. For example, most of the respondents who said their mothers had a lesbian relationship also endured the searing experience of having their mothers leave the household as the family collapsed.

In other words, Regnerus is concluding that when families endure a shattering separation, it is likely to shatter the lives of those in them. And this is news?

[...]

Regnerus seeks to enhance the credibility and relevance of this body of research by including in his sample respondents who actually had a gay parent instead of just people from broken or single-parent homes. But because his sample is mostly made up of fractured families, he fails the most basic requirement of social science research — assessing causation by holding all other variables constant. What he has produced is no better than its predecessors at yielding insight into the effect of same-sex parenting. [LA Times6/13/12]

John Corvino: “This Study Is Bound To Be Misused” In The Fight Against Same-Sex Marriage. According to John Corvino, chair of the Philosophy Department atWayneStateUniversity:

Unfortunately, this study is bound to be misused in the ongoing debate over same-sex marriage, as evidence for the oft-repeated claim that “children do best with their own biological mother and father.” That claim, as I argue in my new book Debating Same-Sex Marriage (with Maggie Gallagher), “conflates a number of distinct variables, including parental number, parental gender(s), marital status, and biological relatedness….But to the extent that researchers have isolated parental gender, comparing same-sex to different-sex parents, they have found that the children fare just as well in each case.” That finding is in no way undermined by the Regnerus study. And that’s the correct interpretation of the “no differences” paradigm that Regnerus aims, and fails, to counter. [The New Republic6/11/12]

Gary J. Gates: Study’s Methodology “Is Designed To Find Bad Outcomes.” BuzzFeed reported:

Gary J. Gates, author of The Gay and Lesbian Atlas and Williams Distinguished Scholar at UCLA Law School, criticized Regnerus's comparison between children of intact heterosexual families and children whose parents had at some point had a same-sex relationship — the latter group, he noted, had experienced divorce, step-parent arrangements, and foster care, all of which are known to affect children's lives no matter what the sexual orientation of their parents.

"The methodology," he said, "is designed to find bad outcomes" for children with same-sex parents.

Regnerus argues that he simply couldn't find enough intact same-sex-parented families to do a comparison, but Gates counters that "if you have limited sample size then you can't do the analysis."

Gates called the findings obvious: "All he's shown us is that family instability isn't good for kids. [BuzzFeed, 6/12/12]

E.J. Graff: Despite Study’s “Propaganda Spin ... It Says Absolutely Nothing About How Children Fare Growing Up From Infancy In Lesbian Or Gay Households.” Writing for The American Prospect, E.J. Graff, resident scholar at the Brandeis Women’sStudiesResearchCenter, argued:

The study compares how children fare stable parents to how children fare under divorce or infidelity. We call that “comparing apples to oranges.” Of course the oranges don’t have black seeds. They’re oranges. If he had compared how children did in heterosexual stepfamilies or heterosexual single-parent families with the lesbian or gay stepfamilies or single-parent homes, we might learn something. But as it is, his research—despite his propaganda spin, which argues that these findings should militate against same-sex marriage—tells you nothing about the effects of having parents who happen to be lesbian or gay. It says absolutely nothing about how children fare growing up from infancy in lesbian or gay households that affirmatively chose to be parents (as opposed to having them accidentally, which is, to understate the case, quite rare if you’re lesbian or gay). That affirmative choice is in itself a good thing for the children, real studies have shown. [The American Prospect, 6/13/12]

Judith Stacey: “Hodgepodge” Population Sample Undermines Regnerus Study. Live Science reported:

The study defined same-sex parenting by asking participants if their parents had ever had same-sex relationships, and whether they had lived with the parent at that time. That led to a "hodgepodge" group of people who Regnerus then compared with kids in stable, married homes, said Judith Stacey, a sociologist atNew YorkUniversitywho was not involved in the research.

"He doesn't have an actual category of gay parents in the project that you can isolate and say the most important thing in this kid's childhood is that they were raised by gay parents," Stacey told LiveScience. "These are kids whose parents, maybe they divorced, maybe they separated, maybe they had a scandalous affair, we just don't know." [Live Science, 6/11/12]

Laurie Essig: Regnerus Study Is Outdated, Compares “Oranges To Apple Slices.” According to Laruie Essig, Associate Professor of Sociology and Women’s & Gender Studies atMiddleburyCollege:

Okay those of you who have had Survey Design 101, what is wrong with that comparison? That’s right–he’s comparing oranges to apple slices. One is “still married biological parents” and one is “had a relationship.” One is an ongoing family structure; the other might have been a two-week fling.

[...]

Not only that, but the study is based on surveys filled out between 1971 and 1994. Although the survey sample was large and therefore considered reliable in the world of statistics, there is another obvious problem with such data. Can you think of what it is? Oh yeah, the gay marriage movement and long-term familial arrangements rooted in homosexual partnerships hadn’t really begun. Instead, Regnerus is lumping people who were born within heterosexual relationships and whose parents later went on to have homosexual ones with children raised in gay families. [The Chronicle Of Higher Education, 6/14/12]

Columnists

Slate’s William Saletan: Children In The Study “Aren’t The Products Of Same-Sex Households. They’re The Products Of Broken Homes.” Slate national correspondent William Saletan responded to the study, writing:

[T]hese people aren’t the products of same-sex households. They’re the products of broken homes. And the closer you look, the weirder the sample gets. Of the 73 respondents Regnerus classified as GF, 12—one of every six—“reported both a mother and a father having a same-sex relationship.” Were these mom-and-dad couples bisexual swingers? Were they closet cases who covered for each other? If their kids, 20 to 40 years later, are struggling, does that reflect poorly on gay parents? Or does it reflect poorly on the era of fake heterosexual marriages?

What the study shows, then, is that kids from broken homes headed by gay people develop the same problems as kids from broken homes headed by straight people. But that finding isn’t meaningless. It tells us something important: We need fewer broken homes among gays, just as we do among straights. We need to study Regnerus’ sample and fix the mistakes we made 20 or 40 years ago. No more sham heterosexual marriages. No more post-parenthood self-discoveries. No more deceptions. No more affairs. And no more polarization between homosexuality and marriage. Gay parents owe their kids the same stability as straight parents. That means less talk about marriage as a right, and more about marriage as an expectation. [Slate6/11/12]

The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson: “If This Study Shows Anything, It’s Not The Effect Of Gay Parenting.” According to Amy Davidson, senior editor at The New Yorker:

If this study shows anything, it’s not the effect of gay parenting, but of non-, or absentee parenting. The numbers are so clumsy that it’s hard to generalize, but one can reasonably guess that there are, buried in them, stories of parents who left or were separated from their children, or households that fell apart, because, eighteen to thirty-nine years ago, someone’s first try at an adult life involved a heterosexual relationship, even if that wasn’t sustainable. As Saletan puts it, the study “doesn’t document the failure of same-sex marriage. It documents the failure of the closeted, broken, and unstable households that preceded same-sex marriage.” We already know that there are benefits to stability—which is what same-sex marriage advocates have been saying all along. If your only question is how to help children, then same-sex marriage remains a solid answer. Look anywhere, even with tools as ill-designed as in this study, and you can find lonely children, and lonely parents, too. You can also find families held together by respect and love—and deserving of both. [The New Yorker6/12/12]

The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates: Regnerus Study “Finds Ellen Degeneres And Eddie Long Are Both Potentially Raising Kids In A Same-Sex Relationship.” Noting problems with Regnerus’s “absurdly broad standard” for defining his study samples, Atlantic senior editor Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote:

What annoys me about scholarship like this is that it's typical of a kind of contrarianism which purports to upend our PC-understanding of some protected class. Regnerus is big on undermining our "simplistic notions" and "lockstep unanimity," implicitly questioning the intellectual integrity of previous scholarship. Too often, people wave the flag of "difficult truths" and "un-PC" as though merely saying something unpopular is somehow a kind of thinking. And yet when you start digging you find that the insurgents haven't really read what they're critiquing--even as they tell you to do so. Or they're conducting a study which finds Ellen Degeneres and Eddie Long are both potentially raising kids in a same-sex relationship. [The Atlantic6/12/12]

The New Republic’s Molly Redden: Regnerus Study Is A “Disaster," And An "Embarrassing Piece Of Statistical Acrobatics.” New Republic assistant editor Molly Redden wrote:

Now the bigger question: Will this embarrassing piece of statistical acrobatics mark the beginning of the end of Mark Regnerus’s credibility with respectable news outlets?

Fingers crossed. Regnerus is a regular on the op-ed circuit and tends to get the first call when a sex-and-youth piece in one of the big dailies needs an expert voice. But for all his statistical abilities (a disaster though this latest study was, he’s still got research chops), Regnerus’s preeminent contribution to mainstream conversation has been his personal retrograde ideas about sex and marriage. [The New Republic6/12/12]

Newsweek’s David Sessions: “Study’s Most Obvious Flaw” Is That It Doesn’t Compare Similar Gay And Straight Families. According to David Session, homepage editor at Newsweek/The Daily Beast:

That’s the study’s most obvious flaw: it doesn’t compare intact, two-parent gay families with similar two-parent straight families. On the contrary, the way Regnerus categorized the children of gay families ensures that they will be wildly incongruous with the straight families. Social scientists and science writers have picked apart other aspects of the study’s methodology, including its basing the categorizations of same-sex parents solely on respondents’ reports that their parent had a gay relationship of some kind and duration during their childhood. Some of the respondents fell into several categories, and to make his data workable, Regnerus had to put some respondents into the “gay father” or “lesbian mother” category when they could have fit into several of his other categories. In his words, he had to “force [categories’] mutual exclusivity for analytic purposes.” As Jim Burroway of the website Box Turtle Bulletin argues, that decision is understandable, but it suggests a weakness of data and ultimately undermines the stated goal of the study. [Newsweek/The Daily Beast, 6/12/12]

LGBT Organizations

LGBT Organizations: Regnerus Study Is “Fundamentally Flawed And Intentionally Misleading.” In a June 11 press release, the Family Equality Council, Human Rights Campaign, Freedom To Marry, and GLAAD condemned the Regnerus study:

Key problems with the “New Family Structures Study” include: 

Equality Texas: Study “Cannot Be Extrapolated To Try And Apply To Couples In 2012.” During a June 12 interview with Fox 7 Austin, Chuck Smith, Deputy Executive Director Chuck Smith said:

SMITH: The study is looking back at a generation ago. It is not reflective and the results cannot be extrapolated to try and apply to couples in 2012 where same-sex couples have the ability to get married in numerous states in our country. So it isn’t reflective of same-sex parenting because it is in fact talking about the children of parents who were not able to get married and in fact they’re the children of broken homes and it’s not surprising that they would have experience some difficulty because of that. [Fox 7 Austin, 6/12/12]

&mdash C.M.

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