Conservatives are abuzz over a new study on same-sex parenting slated to appear in the July issue of Social Science Research. According to the study's lead investigator, associate sociology professor Mark Regnerus, children of heterosexual married parents score better on a number of measures of social, emotional, and relationship outcomes than the children of same-sex parents. Anti-gay groups like the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) and Family Research Council (FRC), along with conservative news outlets like National Review Online and The Washington Times, are hailing the study as proof of the dangers of same-sex parenting.
In reality, the study suffers from a number of serious methodological flaws, and the political motivations of its backers should raise concerns about the survey's findings.
1. The Study Doesn't Compare Married Gay Parents To Married Heterosexual Parents. One of the most obvious flaws of Regnerus's study is that it fails to compare married same-sex parents to married heterosexual parents. Instead, the study lumps together the children all family types that include a gay parent -- regardless of the family's structure, history, marital status, etc. -- and attempts to compare them to children raised in a “still-intact biological family” (IBF). As Slate's William Saletan wrote, this grouping method is extremely problematic:
This loaded classification system produced predictable results. In his journal article, Regnerus says respondents who were labeled GF [child of a gay father] or LM [child of a lesbian mother] originated most commonly from a “failed heterosexual union.” As evidence, he observes that “just under half of such respondents reported that their biological parents were once married.” Most respondents classified as LM “reported that their biological mother exited the respondent's household at some point during their youth.” Regnerus calculates that only one-sixth to one-quarter of kids in the LM sample—and less than 1 percent of kids in the GF sample—were planned and raised by an already-established gay parent or couple. In Slate, he writes that GF kids “seldom reported living with their father for very long, and never with his partner for more than three years.” Similarly, “less than 2 percent” of LM kids “reported living with their mother and her partner for all 18 years of their childhood.”
In short, these 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. [emphasis added]
2. The Author Admits The Study Doesn't Establish Causation Between Same-Sex Parenting And Negative Outcomes. Despite the right-wing media's celebration of the study, even Regnerus admits that none of his findings actually establish causation between same-sex parenting and negative outcomes for children. In response to a number of commentaries that will be published alongside his study, Regnerus wrote:
I recognize, with Paul and Cynthia, that organizations may utilize these findings to press a political program. And I concur with them that that is not what data come prepared to do. Paul offers wise words of caution against it, as did I in the body of the text. Implying causation here—to parental sexual orientation or anything else, for that matter—is a bridge too far. [emphasis added]
3. The Study Arbitrarily Ignores Overlaps In Its Subpopulations. Another problem with Regnerus' study is that it fails to distinguish between particular subpopulations of gay parents. In order to maximize the size of the group of gay and lesbian parents, Regnerus lumped together divorced families, step families, single parent families, and a number of other varying family structures into the LM and GF categories, while excluding them from the IBF comparison group. The result is an extremely heterogeneous sample of gay parents being compared to a relatively homogenous sample of heterosexual parents. As Box Turtle Bulletin's Jim Burroway noted in a comprehensive takedown of the study:
Regnerus's decision to arbitrarily force his sample into non-overlapping categories results in a method is based solely on a desire to increase the size of the smaller group, a goal which has nothing to do with the study's larger goal of comparing children of gay and lesbian parents to those of intact biological families. In fact, he makes choices which, by their very nature, run explicitly counter to that goal. With each transfer of a subject from the Divorced, Step Families, Single Parent or “All Others” categories into LM or GF, the less those LM and GF groups are designed to look like intact biological families. Especially if you consider some of the possibilities that might exist in the “All Others” category.
4. The Study Doesn't Accurately Define Gay And Lesbian Parents. The study not only fails in defining families headed by same-sex parents -- it also fails in accurately identifying what constitutes a gay parent in the first place. Regnerus labels any parent who has, at one point, been involved in a same-sex relationship as either a gay father or lesbian mother. Professor John Corvino pointed out the absurdity of this approach in a column for The New Republic:
Question: What do the following all have in common?
A heterosexually married female prostitute who on rare occasion services women
A long-term gay couple who adopt special-needs children
A never-married straight male prison inmate who sometimes seeks sexual release with other male inmates
A woman who comes out of the closet, divorces her husband, and has a same-sex relationship at age 55, after her children are grown
Ted Haggard, the disgraced evangelical pastor who was caught having drug fueled-trysts with a male prostitute over a period of several years
A lesbian who conceives via donor insemination and raises several children with her long-term female partner
Give up? The answer—assuming that they all have biological or adopted adult children between the ages of 18 and 39—is that they would all be counted as “Lesbian Mothers” or “Gay Fathers” in Mark Regnerus's new study.
Regnerus himself admitted that this approach to identifying alleged gay parents severely limits the study's scope:
In the results section, for maximal ease, I often make use of the acronyms IBF (child of a still-intact biological family), LM (child of a lesbian mother), and GF (child of a gay father). It is, however, very possible that the same-sex romantic relationships about which the respondents report were not framed by those respondents as indicating their own (or their parent's own) understanding of their parent as gay or lesbian or bisexual in sexual orientation. Indeed, this is more a study of the children of parents who have had (and in some cases, are still in) same-sex relationships than it is one of children whose parents have self-identified or are ''out'' as gay or lesbian or bisexual. The particular parental relationships the respondents were queried about are, however, gay or lesbian in content. [emphasis added]
5. The Study's Author And Funders Have An Agenda. One final issue with Regnerus' study -- though there are many more -- is that both its lead investigator and its funders are known for their conservative political leanings. Regnerus has a history of making right-leaning comments about marriage and sexuality. The study was primarily funded by the Witherspoon Institute, a right-wing think tank in New Jersey with close ties to a number of prominent anti-gay groups and activists. Although the study states that the Institute played no role in crafting the report, it's worth noting that it was primarily sponsored by a group that would rather not see gay and lesbian couples raising children.