There’s a new study out that purports to compare the well-being of children raised by gay and straight parents, concluding that children of gay parents have more negative outcomes. But the study is little more than a bad joke. As John Corvino points out, it was clearly designed to compare apples to hand grenades and to reach the desired result (the study was funded by the Witherspoon Institute, a religious right organization). Corvino notes how broad the sample group for gay parents is:
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, “How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Study” (NFSS)…
Instead, Regnerus—a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin—asked respondents whether their mothers or fathers had ever had a same-sex relationship, regardless of the duration of the relationship and “regardless of any other household transitions.” He then allowed those answers to trump others in order to increase the “Lesbian Mother” and “Gay Father” sample size and treated all of the family-form categories as mutually exclusive, even though they are not. (To use the Haggard example: although he is still technically in an “intact biological family,” he would be counted among the “Gay Father” families in this study.)
In other words, Regnerus’ “Lesbian Mother” and “Gay Father” categories (unlike the “Intact Biological Family” Category) included children of adoptive parents, step-parents, single parents, and, notably, a large number from divorced parents. Regnerus then observes in the resulting data that the children of his “Lesbian Mothers” and “Gay Fathers” look less like children of married biological parents than they do like children of adoptive parents, step-parents, single parents, and divorced parents. Well, duh.
If Regnerus actually wanted to make a valid comparison, it’s certainly possible to do so. He could compare children of single straight mothers to children of single straight fathers (while controlling for a number of other factors, of course — race, income, religion, etc.). He could compare children adopted by gay couples in committed relationships with children adopted by straight married couples. But he didn’t do that; he compared a huge range of different family situations — children of divorce and adoption, children of single parents and many more — with children from stable households with two parents. It should hardly be a shock that he reaches the conclusion he does, it is guaranteed by the nature of the sample groups.
Jim Burroway points to many of the same problems:
I understand Regnerus’s problem with having a sample of lesbian mothers and gay fathers that is too small to make statistical comparisons with the control group. But the proper solution to that problem would have been to go back to Knowledge Networks for another round of sample recruitment. Then perhaps he could have compared children of gay and lesbian parents who had been brought up in a stable environment with children of heterosexual parents in a stable environment. He could have also compared children of gay and lesbian parents in unstable environments with their heterosexual counterparts.
But instead, he undertakes a manipulation which I believe represents the fatal flaw of this study. If one wanted to intentionally create Lesbian Mothers and Gay Fathers groups which were least likely to look like an intact biological family, I can’t imagine a better way to do so than to take the steps Regnerus has taken here. He enlarged his LM and GF groups by lumping together a mishmash of overlapping characteristics into two messy samples. The other six categories are relatively homogenous for straight people, but Regnerus’s enlargement of LM and GF groups makes them deliberately heterogeneous. And now having done this, he’s about to compare two deliberately heterogeneous categories (LM and GF) to a deliberately homogeneous category. Well of course there will be differences once you do that!…
Marriage equality opponents will trumpet this study as proof that children raised by loving, committed, married same-sex couples will have more problems than those who are raised by both biological parents in a heterosexual household. But the samples that Regnerus put together to compare to the ideal heterosexual household cannot make such a claim because it says almost nothing about committed same-sex couples who, together, decide to become parents via adoption, in-vitro fertilization or surrogacy…
What Regnerus sees as a strength, I see as a gross weakness in the context of current debates over same-sex marriage. Those debates center on whether committed, loving same-sex relationships are worthy of recognition, and one component of that debate has been what effects, if any, loving, same-sex relationships have on children. But to have a legitimate comparison, you’d have to look at children whose experience in that same-sex family was, for all intents and purposes, in place for their entire or almost entire childhoods. After all, that is the experience of children from intact biological heterosexual families.
But in this study, only 57% said they had lived with their mother and her partner for at least four months before the age of 18, and only 23% reported living with their father and his partner for the same length of time. Only 23% of LM children and 2% of GF children reported living with their parents and their parents’ same-sex partners for three years or more. And when looking at the outcomes of those children, we are being led to believe that those outcomes are in some way related to the short amounts of time that those children spent with their gay or lesbian parents while in a same-sex relationship, and not the fifteen-plus years the vast majority of them spent outside of that dynamic. The illogic behind this comparison is mind-boggling.
No doubt the bigots will be citing this study until the cows come home, but it clearly isn’t worth the paper it is printed on.