We've been here before. In 2003, Psychiatrist Robert Spitzer published a study that suggested that a significant proportion of gay men and lesbians could change their sexual orientation if they worked hard to do so. Earlier this year, he recanted this claim, but not before his erroneous study was used as ammunition by right-wing Evangelicals to bolster their claim that sexual orientation is not an in-born characteristic. And for nearly a decade, LGBT youth have been sent off to programs where they were implored to "pray the gay away." At best, it was a waste of time. At worst, it ended the lives of many youth who realized that they could not change, and then committed suicide.
Now another study has been released, this one designed to convince the public that children raised by same-sex couples do significantly worse in particular ways than those raised in families where the biological mother and father remain married for the duration of their children's childhood. The study was conducted by Mark Regnerus, Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. A report on this and another study in Science Daily has this say on the study's findings:
According to [Regnerus'] findings, children of mothers who have had same-sex relationships were significantly different as young adults on 25 of the 40 (63%) outcome measures, compared with those who spent their entire childhood with both their married, biological parents. For example, they reported significantly lower levels of income, more receipt of public welfare, lower levels of employment, poorer mental and physical health, poorer relationship quality with current partner, and higher levels of smoking and criminality.
So what happened? Previously, data suggested that children raised by same-sex couples were no more prone to such problems as children of raised by their biological parents. What's different? As it turns out, it's a trick of slanted data analysis.
Details below the fold.
More description about Regnerus' study:
In his study, Professor Mark Regnerus used data from the New Family Structures Study (NFSS) , a large nationally representative sample of just under 3,000 young Americans aged 18 to 39, to compare how children raised in eight different family structures fared on 40 social, emotional, and relationship outcomes.
So, what's wrong with this large-sample based study? Well, it's all in how the various children were counted, and how they were classified. John Corvino at The New Republic points out
... Regnerus ... 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.
As Jim Burroway explains in his excellent analysis of the 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.”
Other sociologists have been critical of Regnerus's study as well. For example, here are the comments of Regnerus' colleague at the University of Texas, Cynthia Osborne:
Whether same-sex parenting causes the observed differences cannot be determined from Regnerus' descriptive analysis. Children of lesbian mothers might have lived in many different family structures and it is impossible to isolate the effects of living with a lesbian mother from experiencing divorce, remarriage, or living with a single parent. Or, it is quite possible, that the effect derives entirely from the stigma attached to such relationships and to the legal prohibitions that prevent same-sex couples from entering and maintaining 'normal relationships'.
And here are the comments of Paul Amato, Professor of sociology at Pennsylvania State University:
If growing up with gay and lesbian parents were catastrophic for children, even studies based on small convenience samples would have shown this by now. If differences exist between children with gay/lesbian and heterosexual parents, they are likely to be small or moderate in magnitude-perhaps comparable to those revealed in the research literature on children and divorce.
However, I fear that these criticisms will end up being ignored by the general public, who will only see the headlines. And now the right-wing evangelicals have been provided still more ammunition to use against families with gay or lesbian parents. Indeed, this study could be used to deny same-sex couple the right to adopt children, or to block marriage equality in some states. And then how many years will it take to get us back on the path to equal rights? It will require years of careful data collection and analysis to definitively debunk this study, and we in the LGBT community will have to live with its consequences until that happens.