A study released this week suggests that, contrary to what years of academic research has said, children of gay parents actually fare worse than others.
According to the study's author, Mark Regnerus, a professor at University of Texas at Austin, the research "clearly reveals that children appear most apt to succeed well as adults — on multiple counts and across a variety of domains — when they spend their entire childhood with their married mother and father." Regnerus says that his study shows stark differences between such children and those with gay parents: the latter are more likely to be unemployed, consider suicide, use drugs, have an STD and fall victim to sexual abuse. Discussing his study in Slate, Regnerus writes that children of same-sex parents experience greater "household instability" than others, and that it could be too much of a "social gamble" to "support this new (but tiny) family form."
The trouble is, this is not what Regnerus' study shows. Not by a long shot. And the claims he makes play into a long-standing pattern of conservative scholars and activists misinterpreting the data on LGBT families.
While Regnerus critiques "same-sex couples" raising kids, his study does not actually compare children raised by same-sex couples with those raised by different-sex couples. The criterion it uses is whether a parent "ever ha[d] a romantic relationship with someone of the same sex." In fact, only a small proportion of its sample spent more than a few years living in a household headed by a same-sex couple. Indeed, the study acknowledges that what it's really comparing with heterosexual families is not families headed by a same-sex couple but households in which parents broke up. "A failed heterosexual union," Regnerus writes in the study, "is clearly the modal method" — the most common characteristic for the group that he lumps in with same-sex-headed households. For example, most of the respondents who said their mothers had a lesbian relationship also endured the searing experience of having their mothers leave the household as the family collapsed.
In other words, Regnerus is concluding that when families endure a shattering separation, it is likely to shatter the lives of those in them. And this is news?
Not only is it not news, it keeps alive the mistaken impression that social science is on the side of anti-gay policy and law. Ever since same-sex marriage started to become a reality in the U.S., conservative groups such as the National Organization for Marriage and the Witherspoon Institute, which helped fund the Regnerus study, have cited research that — it's claimed — shows that gay parenting is a bad idea. In 2003, Maggie Gallagher, a co-founder of NOM, wrote in the Weekly Standard of "a consensus across ideological lines based on 20 years' worth of social science research" that children do better with a married mother and father. Writing in The Times in 2004, Pepper-
dine University professor Douglas Kmiec claimed that children who grow up in gay households "are more likely to be confused sexually" and to "face a heightened chance of being the victim of sexual abuse." Citing such research, opponents of same-sex marriage have settled on the talking point that "children need a mother and a father" to thrive.
The trouble is that no scholarly research, including the Regnerus paper, has ever compared children of stable same-sex couples to children of stable different-sex couples, in part because an adequate sample size is hard to come by. (Regnerus acknowledges he was unable to find an adequate sample size, but he went ahead and made the comparison anyway.) Like the Regnerus paper, all these studies show is that divorce and single-parenthood raise risks for kids. Indeed, the basis of the 20-year "consensus" is that two parents are better than one, not that parents have to be different genders.
Regnerus seeks to enhance the credibility and relevance of this body of research by including in his sample respondents who actually had a gay parent instead of just people from broken or single-parent homes. But because his sample is mostly made up of fractured families, he fails the most basic requirement of social science research — assessing causation by holding all other variables constant. What he has produced is no better than its predecessors at yielding insight into the effect of same-sex parenting.
There is a larger point, however, that can be lost in the debate over how to read the data. There is no basis in the recent history of American social policy for testing the parenting skills of a class of citizens before we grant them permission to parent — or to marry. Given all the research on the hardships of children raised by single parents, there is still no movement to preemptively remove kids from broken homes after every divorce or to ban single people from having kids; such policies would be patently inhumane and unenforceable. Growing up in poverty increases the risk of a wide range of social and psychological ills, yet since the craze for eugenics died down, no one is proposing banning poor people from marriage or child rearing. And some ethnic and racial groups are statistically less likely to get or stay married, yet there is no ethnic litmus test for marriage or parenting — only a gay one.
With the Supreme Court poised to look closely at this very question — whether the state has a compelling interest (such as child welfare) in limiting marriage to heterosexuals — this research and how it's interpreted matters. Not because gay people should have to pass some special test to marry or protect their families, but so those with an anti-gay agenda can't deprive children of such protections under the banner of helping them.
Nathaniel Frank, a visiting scholar at Columbia's Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, is writing a book called "The Anti-Gay Mind."