Are Gay Parents Worse Than Straight Parents?

Andrew Sullivan —  Jun 12 2012 @ 12:22pm


Mark Regnerus has a new study, funded by socially conservative organizations, that claims to compare gay parents with straight parents. Except it doesn't:

Instead of relying on small samples, or the challenges of discerning sexual orientation of household residents using census data, my 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. 

Unsurprisingly, this methodology found that the children of "gay" parents were "comparable to those from heterosexual stepfamilies and single parents." Jim Burroway double-takes:

When you look at the data, the study’s real findings become obvious. Children of parents who have had a same-sex relationship — a group that includes very large numbers of children of divorced parents, single parents, adopted parents, step-parents and "other" family structures — have developmental outcomes which are remarkably similar to children of divorced, single, adopted, step-, and "other" family structures overall when compared to intact, non-adoptive heterosexual families.

Regnerus designed his study to show this result by constructing samples which mimicked these characteristics. By constructing his [LM (child of a lesbian mother), and GF (child of a gay father)] samples the way he did, the only legitimate comparison he could make would be to children of divorced, single, adopted, step-, and "other" family structures. But that’s not the comparison he made. He focused the study on making the wrong comparison, and then concluded that children of gay and lesbian parents have more negative outcomes than children of straight parents in intact households.

John Corvino puts it more bluntly:

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.

They are all defined in the study as committed same-sex parents with civil marriage, like their heterosexual peers. William Saletan has similar concerns. The lesson he draws:

[K]ids 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.

Exactly. It's also important to note that one of the reasons the study asks about a parent's sexual orientation – but not about whether that parent is in a committed, stable relationship – is that it's dated. It's about current adults who grew up in mostly dysfunctional homes, where one of the parents may have had a homosexual affair, or is leading a double life, or is self-medicating to cope with being gay while acting straight. In so far as the study reflects the difficulties for children growing up in such unstable homes, it is surely making the case for stable civil marriage as a critical institution for the rearing of children. I of course agree. But this won't be how the reactionary right will spin this:

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.

Douthat uses the study to argue for marriage equality federalism:

Same-sex marriage is a social experiment, and like most experiments it will take time to understand its consequences. We don’t know how relationship norms and expectations will evolve in the gay community – where the ongoing Dan Savage-style debates about monogamy and fidelity will lead, for instance, or how closely same-sex marriage will be associated with childrearing. We don’t know how plausible Saletan’s vision of wedlock and parenting running on parallel tracks for gays and straights really is. And the near-universal liberal optimism on the subject notwithstanding, we don’t really know how straight culture will be influenced on the long run by the final, formal severing of marriage from procreation. If gay marriage gains ground on its current trajectory – state by state, steadily but still somewhat gradually, driven mostly by generational change – then there will be time to watch these trends and debate their implications. But if the Supreme Court (that is, Anthony Kennedy) simple nationalizes gay marriage, there will be no room for debate and no chance for any reconsiderations.

I'm with Ross on this. This deeply flawed study simply shows we do not know the impact of more stable, committed civil marriages for gays on the social and personal outcomes for their kids. The only way to figure that out definitively is to try it in the real world. We're only a few years into the marriage equality experiment in the first state, Massachusetts. It will be years before real studies of actual child-rearing by married gay couples can be conducted. So let us move forward gradually. I should add, by the way, that a conservative would surely see parents who are committed for life in stable civil marriages as the best possible. And yet they are doing their damnedest to prevent that for gay people and our kids. There is no logic here; just panic.

(Graphic by Rob Tisinai)