What Hurts Children More: Having Lesbian and Gay Parents, or Junk Science About Their Parents?

When is a new study “research,” and when is it propaganda? That’s the question to ask when looking at Mark Regnerus’s “study,” released this past weekend, on children who had a parent who had an affair with someone of the same sex. Regnerus compares children who grew up in an intact household from birth to adulthood with children who started in a heterosexual marriage but who had a parent who crossed over to the gay side. And yet Regnerus is touting it as a study on the real-life experiences of children who grew up with lesbian or gay parents. Here’s what he says in Slate, of all places, which I usually respect:

… [M]y colleagues and I randomly screened over 15,000 Americans aged 18-39 and asked them if their biological mother or father ever had a romantic relationship with a member of the same sex. I realize that one same-sex relationship does not a lesbian make, necessarily. But our research team was less concerned with the complicated politics of sexual identity than with same-sex behavior.

The basic results call into question simplistic notions of “no differences,” at least with the generation that is out of the house. On 25 of 40 different outcomes evaluated, the children of women who’ve had same-sex relationships fare quite differently than those in stable, biologically-intact mom-and-pop families, displaying numbers more comparable to those from heterosexual stepfamilies and single parents.

Well, here’s why his numbers were more comparable to stepfamilies and single parents: Because these children were in stepfamilies or had single parents. 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.

A look at Regnerus’s agenda and at this study’s funders—the socially right-wing organizations the Witherspoon Institute and the Bradley Foundation—tells all you need to know about Regnerus’s motivations. The New York Times’ article about the study includes quotes that assess it appropriately:

Paul Amato, a sociologist at Penn State who was not involved in the study and has written in favor or same-sex marriage, said that many scholars suspected that some children with a gay parent might have more troubles than the average child, particularly in past decades when the stigma was greater. “We know, for instance, that many people with a gay parent were essentially raised in a stepfamily, and went through a divorce, both of which are associated with modest but real disadvantages,” he said.

Others said the study was limited in its usefulness. “What we really need in this field is for strong skeptics to study gay, stable parents and compare them directly to a similar group of heterosexual, stable parents,” said Judith Stacey, a sociologist at New York University….

“When I look at his data, my main take-away is that divorce and family transition is not a great outcome for kids,” said Gary Gates, a demographer at the at the University of California, Los Angeles, who was not involved in the study.

Box Turtle Bulletin has a thorough analysis of the study’s methodology, for those who want to dig in deep. Jim Burroway notes, among other things, that “Regnerus notes that the original raw sample showed that 1.7 percent of all Americans between the ages of 18 and 39 report that their father or mother has had a same-sex relationship. This is in line with several other studies on same-sex households with children.” And Media Matters has an excellent dissection of the study’s major flaws, expanding very clearly on these four points: the study doesn’t compare married gay parents to married heterosexual parents; the author admits the study doesn’t establish causation between same-sex parenting and negative outcomes; the study arbitrarily ignores overlaps in its subpopulations; the study doesn’t accurately define gay and lesbian parents; and the study’s author and funders have an agenda.

For the fourth point, Media Matters quotes John Corvino’s take-down at 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.

And for the fifth point, David Badash at the (problematically named) blog The New Civil Rights Movement goes into some depth about Regnerus’s ideology, funders, and ties, including his religious belief in abstaining from sex until heterosexual marriage.

Ross Douthat, of all people, while noting that he agrees with Regnerus’s underlying sexually conservative outlook, comments:

Regnerus’s study is necessarily a look backward. No matter where they lived or how they were treated by their peers, many of his subjects came of age when homosexuality was still marginalized and despised and gay marriage barely on the radar screen. The majority were born to male-female couples in which one partner later came out as gay (adding an extra layer of complexity and heartbreak), rather than being planned via adoption, sperm donation or in vitro fertilization. Almost none were raised in a single same-sex household for their entire childhood. Today the models of gay parenting have presumably shifted, the stability of gay households has presumably increased, and the outcomes for children may be shifting as well.

The old, discredited parenting studies used to do this: Compare the children of intact heterosexual families with the children of lesbian families formed after a heterosexual divorce. For serious research, go to Judith Stacey or Michael Lamb, the dean of research into fatherhood. When I wrote my book on marriage, I loved diving into Lamb’s studies, which reveal his surprise that while a second parent is extremely helpful, fathers don’t add anything distinctive because of their gender; rather, they bring a second perspective, an additional source of support and love, and all those extra resources that protect against poverty. Nan Polikoff summarizes his findings on child adjustment nicely here.

Given so many big and small guns aimed at this little study, why am I writing about it at such length? Because it is profoundly dangerous.

Years ago, I used to write about the parenting studies without much emotion. I read them pretty thoroughly, and was unsurprised that they basically found no differences between children raised by a man and a woman, and children raised by a woman and a woman. (At the time, there were no studies on children raised by two men.) That just made sense to me. How could the sex of the parents possibly matter? Consider that, historically, most children did not reach adulthood with both biological parents alive. Mothers died in childbirth. Both parents died of skin infections, minor tumors, farm accidents, the flu, the plague—things we’re now protected from by vaccinations, antibiotics, surgery, handwashing, plumbing, Clorox. Over those millennia of early mortality, children came of age in an astounding array of family structures: a father and grandfather, a mother and aunts, stepfamilies, boarding schools, a little village of your father’s wives and half-siblings. If the only way you could reach a healthy and productive adulthood was with two biological parents, the human race could never have survived. And given the variation from one father to another—from an easygoing Mr. Rogers type to a Marine drill sergeant who checks your bed for hospital corners, from a sexually abusive alcoholic to a wealthy man who becomes a dad by his third wife at age 65—how could “fatherhood” possibly be lumped into one bucket? What could the mothering styles of Courtney Love, Hillary Clinton, Amy Chua, and your neighborhood church lady possibly have in common? The characters and behavior of the individuals involved—their affection, attachment, consistency, and reliability—have to be more important than having non-matching sets of genitals. Or as the social scientists say, family behavior counts more than family structure.

But I don’t feel blithe about this any more, now that I’m a parent. Very few people read deeply into social science. In fact, I dare say very few of you have made it this far in my absurdly long post. What most people hear are the headlines, which do make their way into the cultural conversation. Right-wing organizations are already rubbing their hands, ready to wield this crap in their campaigns.

And that’s dangerous. I don’t want my child hearing this nonsense parroted by someone else’s child. I don’t want him made to feel ashamed of the family he loves*. Because that really does hurt kids.

The only possible reason for Slate (full disclosure: I’ve published there in the past) to run this dangerous propaganda was to bring in clicks. You can tell they knew it was crap; above the article, they included a link to William Saletan’s analysis tearing it apart. But running it is still appalling and irresponsible. Slate’s editors should be ashamed.

*(Loves except, of course, on those days when he tells me I’m The Worst Mother In The World for enforcing bedtime or insisting he does his homework.)

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