New Study Questions Whether There Really Is “No Difference” Between Gay and Straight Parents

America’s obsession with the parenting skills of gay people is almost as old as the history of gay people in America. For years, it was assumed that all gays were degenerate sexual deviant drug addicts with no interest in relationships or family, and then it was presumed that we were inherently unfit parents. And then, when actual research was done into the realm of gay and lesbian parenting, many studies found little or no measurable difference between parenting outcomes of gay and straight couples. In fact, in 2005, the APA issued a brief stating “Not a single study has found children of lesbian or gay parents to be disadvantaged in any significant respect relative to children of heterosexual parents.” In 2010, a new study found that children of lesbian parents were significantly less likely to report abuse than those of straight parents; there were even studies claiming that lesbians were measurably better parents than straight ones, although it wasn’t particularly credible.

Now, a new study by Mark Regnerus published in Social Science Research may be establishing a new paradigm in terms of research on gay and lesbian parents (well, mostly lesbian parents, but more on that later). (There’s a downloadable PDF of the study in full available here.) While the study and methodology are both fairly complex, they can (sort of) be distilled to two basic claims:

1) The studies done previously on gay and lesbian parents aren’t methodologically sound or based on statistically significant samples, so their results aren’t very meaningful. Or, as Regnerus puts it:

Of the 59 studies referenced in the APA brief, more than three-quarters were based on small, non-representative, non-random samples that did not include any minority individuals or families; nearly half lacked a heterosexual comparison group; and few examined outcomes that extend beyond childhood such as intergenerational poverty, educational attainment, and criminality, which are a key focus of studies on children of divorce, remarriage, and cohabitation.

2) When samples are more significant and methodology is more rigorous, results actually show that young adult children of gay and lesbian families (but especially lesbian families) actually show very different outcomes, and usually negative ones. They’re significantly more likely to experience mental illness, poverty, sexual violence, and substance abuse — essentially, many of the things that the religious right warns about.

Of course, the religious right already has some studies up their sleeve that also support these results, like the ones that “experts” such as David Blankenhorn have tried to reference in contexts like the Prop 8 trial. The issue is that those studies are also very unsound. For instance, the studies Blankenhorn tried to claim proved that a father was a necessary part of a household only compared “intact” heterosexual families with other heterosexual families in which the father had abandoned them, been jailed, or died. There aren’t meaningful comparisons to be made here to gay families. Regnerus’s study, however, is much more legitimate. It studies much larger sample sizes than previous studies, and uses data from a large family structure data collection project that means its gay and lesbian respondents weren’t self-selected, as in earlier studies. (The reason it was able to do this is that it also had much more money to work with than most earlier studies, a whopping $785,000.) It also introduced elements intended to control for factors like anti-gay bullying, education, and family income, which is meaningful because the results are less likely to be attributable to the fact that lesbians families may be poorer, or that anti-gay stigma may mean that the children of gay parents face discrimination.

This doesn’t mean that the study is entirely unproblematic, or is going without criticism — especially from gay organizations. Box Turtle Bulletin has an excellent breakdown of what some concerns with the study may be; for instance, it categorizes anyone who answers yes to the question “From when you were born until age 18 (or until you left home to be on your own), did either of your parents ever have a romantic relationship with someone of the same sex?” as a child of a gay male or a child of a lesbian, depending on the parent. (The full questionnaire given to survey participants can be found here.) Of course, having a romantic relationship with someone of the same sex doesn’t mean you’re gay or lesbian, and a “yes” answer to the question may have meant their parent had a short affair while remaining in a heterosexual marriage. This inconsistency is something Regnerus himself acknowledges in the study, but it’s a little bit messy in terms of data organization; it means that  the homogenous “control” group, “intact” heterosexual families, is being compared with a heterogenous sample of families in which parents have had varying levels of same-sex contact. (The study also found a very small sample size children who reported gay male parents, and found significantly less difference between gay male parents and heterosexual parents than between lesbian parents and heterosexual parents.)

It’s also notable that since this study looks at “young adults,” it is essentially reporting on the past generation of gay parents, parents whose kids have already left the home. The world looked very different for gay families then — there were even more barriers to their psychological and economic wellbeing than there are now — and these results may not meaningfully reflect on the generation of parents raising kids now. Some critics, like William Saletan at Slate, argue that the real result of the study is just that gay and lesbian families (especially those who are headed by what Regnerus calls “emergent” gays or lesbians, people who came out and pursued same-sex relationships after having children) have similar outcomes to other families that aren’t “intact heterosexual families,” including adoptive families, divorced families, and foster families. There’s no reason to be ashamed of having different outcomes from ‘the norm’ when you’re not ‘the norm;’ gay families, as well as adoptive and divorced families, will naturally face different challenges and therefore look slightly different in statistics.

Understandably, there’s concern that these results will be used as ammunition by groups like NOM, Focus on the Family, the American Family Association, and Protect Marriage — after all, they’re already making this argument, and what will they do now that there’s a comprehensive and well-funded study that seems to support their findings? To his credit, Regnerus has made a point of disassociating himself from those who would use his results to make claims about the rights or legal privileges of gay parents, saying:

I would be remiss to claim causation here, since to document that having particular family-of-origin experiences—or the sexual relationships of one’s parents—causes outcomes for adult children, I would need to not only document that there is a correlation between such family-of-origin experiences, but that no other plausible factors could be the common cause of any suboptimal outcomes… This study cannot answer political questions about same-sex relationships and their legal legitimacy.

 One would hope that, as in the Prop 8 trial, a competent lawyer would be able to do a thorough reading of the study and could point out the reasons why this study isn’t a wholesale condemnation of gay parenting skills if the issue came up in court. And while the criticism that a homogenous sample of “intact” families is being compared with a heterogenous sample  of many kinds of families is valid, it also seems like it may be possible to build off of Regnerus’s work and use some of the same data to construct what may be a more meaningful comparison.

Because that’s another hugely important outcome of this research – the hope that it may create an opportunity for more research. Almost all issues pertaining to LGBT needs, from our family lives to our medical needs, are woefully understudied. This means that even organizations and entities that want to help us may be at a loss, because there’s no information to recommend policy guidelines or possible solutions to our community’s problems. While it’s very frustrating that its results may be so easily misconstrued, it’s also a giant landmark that we finally have a study this well-funded to look at. Because even without looking at the researcher’s conclusions, the data is in many ways illuminating. One of the less-discussed findings of Regnerus’s work is that the typical gay family is less likely to be white, highly educated, well-off and married than much of our representation in the media would suggest:

The use of a probability sample reveals that the young-adult children of parents who have had same-sex relationships (in the NFSS) look less like the children of today’s stereotypic gay and lesbian couples—white, upper–middle class, well-educated, employed, and prosperous—than many studies have tacitly or explicitly portrayed… Rosenfeld’s (2010) analysis of Census data suggests that 37% of children in lesbian cohabiting households are Black or Hispanic. Among respondents in the NFSS who said their mother had a same-sex relationship, 43% are Black or Hispanic. In the NLLFS, by contrast, only 6% are Black or Hispanic.

If our goal is to support gay and lesbian families and their children, then we have to start by knowing who they are. And while the real meaning of Regnerus’s results might not be quite so simple as “children of lesbians are worse off than children of straight people,” if there are unique challenges facing the children of gay parents (which does not necessarily imply that those challenges are the fault of those parents), wouldn’t it be better for us to know about them? We desperately need thorough and well-funded research to provide us with the information we need to take care of our own community, and the fact that any group wanted to shell out $785,000 to study us is an excellent sign. Regnerus’s study isn’t the last word in research on gay families, or gay health, or anything else. If anything, it may be a sign that we’re entering a new era — not of scientifically proven bad parenting, but of real sociological research starting to replace assumption, fearmongering, and unexamined prejudice.

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Rachel is Autostraddle's Senior Editor and the editor who presides over books as well as news and politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel currently lives in Michigan. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy."

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21 Comments

  1. Thumb up 15

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    Time Magazine, having analyzed the study, has found that only two of the interviewed persons were raised from birth to 18 by a same sex couple. The question given was has either of your biological parents had a same sex relationship. The overwhelming amount of those interviewed came from households that underwent divorce. This was contrasted with only individuals whose opposite sex parents raised them together from birth to 18. Divorced or separated parents were thrown out. They have found a ton of flaws and also found that the report was funded by a conservative group and that Regnerus contributes to conservative publications. What a shocker (that is sarcasm).

  2. Thumb up 8

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    From the New York Times.

    “The study looked a nationally representative sample of 2,988 people ages 18 to 39. The study’s author, Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas in Austin, said he sought financing from the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J., and the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee because government agencies “don’t want to touch this stuff.”

    The participants answered questions about their current social, occupational and economic experiences and their early life. They included 163 whose mother had a same-sex relationship and 73 whose father did. Just three of those who had lesbian mothers lived out their entire childhood with that parent, Dr. Regnerus said; none of those whose fathers had had a same-sex relationship lived full time with their fathers through childhood.”

    Quite simply, Dr. Regnerus devised a nonsensical survey, on behalf of two infamous conservative think tanks.

    • Thumb up 4

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      Thanks for this additional information. Sometimes I feel like it’s getting to the point where the words “study” and “research” have as much meaning as “magical stardust potion”. And that is a sad thing.

      It’s always seemed to me that it would make sense for studies to show that kids of same-sex parents are better off – not because gay people make inherently better parents per se, but simply because of the necessary time, effort, cost and conscious commitment that same-sex couples have to put into making the decision to have children. There is no “whoops, it just happened even though we’re too young and too poor and we’ve only known each other for three weeks and I think I’ve just decided that I don’t really like you that much after all”.

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        Except that the whole point of this is that many children of lesbian parents ARE from heterosexual sex. And I personally know at least a few lesbians who do have those kinds of babies, those you describe as ” “whoops, it just happened even though we’re too young and too poor and we’ve only known each other for three weeks and I think I’ve just decided that I don’t really like you that much after all.” Two of my friends did get accidentally pregnant with men, had their babies, and raise them while living as queer (one with her partner and one as a single lesbian parent with shared custody with her son’s father). And I don’t think they like it (and I know don’t) when their very real and legitimate choices get casually written off this way, as if all lesbians conceive a certain way and that way is better than the dumb and “poor” straight people.

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          Whoa there. I didn’t say anywhere that ALL same-sex couples have kids this way or that ALL straight couples have accidental babies. Obviously there are excellent straight (or queer) parents whose babies were surprises. I also didn’t say that poor people can’t be good parents or that young people can’t be good parents or that any given group of people can’t be good parents.

          My point is simply that, ON AVERAGE, it seems likely that more children of same-sex couples will have been intentionally wanted/chosen/created. Maybe I’m wrong about that, I don’t know the statistics. But I think it’s unfair of you to assume I’m casually dismissing anyone’s choices when that was not at all what I was doing.

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          …And just to clarify, when I said “there is no such-and-such type of situation”, I meant between two monogamous people of the same sex who don’t already have children from previous relationships/experience.

  3. Thumb up 13

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    i think it’s really silly to compare any families to families with two biological parents who have been married for the child’s entire life. although i know a lot of those couples might be miserable, on the whole i’ve noted that married couples who have been together for their child’s entire life are usually magical unicorns. like you have to be a pretty self-aware special straight person to make it through all those years of marriage. like my girlfriend’s parents! they are unicorns.

    anyhow, my parents are divorced, my dad is dead, my mom is gay, her partner has two adopted foster kids and one of those kids just had another kid, and i’m completely insane. however, my brother totally has his shit together.

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      This this this. A meaningful study on this topic would compare the children of intact heterosexual couples with the children of intact homosexual couples, i.e. all children in the study will have been raised by the same two parents from birth to age 18. I feel like this will be possible in the next generation or so, so hopefully someone will do that.

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      On a similar note, families that stay together until the kids are grown aren’t necessarily the most stable places to grow up, either- My parents didn’t split until I was in college, and my response to that was only to be grateful that it was over- especially since I don’t remember them ever being happy together or not fighting All The Time. My mother told me that she was considering a divorce when I was in 5th or 6th grade, which, knowing her, means she had to have been considering it for probably a couple years before that.

      My brother and sister mostly/totally have their shit together, but my parents staying together for so long totally at least contributed to my being crazy.

      I guess my point is that really, you can’t compare any two families because even if they both look like they’ve got their shit together from the outside, you have no idea what else is going on there.

  4. Thumb up 5

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    One of the many things that drives me nuts about these kinds of attempts to measure the effects of parenting are some of the assumptions about what makes a happy or healthy life; if you’re not in a relationship as a young adult, apparently that means your parents have screwed you up. If you have a lot of sexual partners as a young adult, apparently your parents have screwed you up. If you are not 100% straight or do not fully identify with the gender you were assigned at birth, apparently your parents have screwed you up. I am trying to take comfort in the fact that the commenters on Slate, who I usually find to be sort of conservative, are tearing this study apart.

  5. Thumb up 2

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    I have already been told today by the CoE that I should not be allowed to get married. Now, apparently, I’m not fit to be a mother either. Do these people realise that it’s individuals they’re attacking here? Or do they just see us as some homogenous mass of gays, out to convert their children and devalue their marriages? I’m sick of it, guys. I honestly don’t know how anyone can believe we choose to be gay when it means we’re subjected to this hurtful, deceitful bullshit day after day…

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    I would like to see a study, preferably not funded by conservatives, of the difference between children of openly gay parents and children of closeted gay parents. The fact that Regenerus doesn’t even account for this speaks volumes about the relevance of his study.

  7. Thumb up 2

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    Dr. Regenerus’s Respondents were raised in a MIXED ORIENTATION MARRIAGE (MOM), or a MIXED ORIENTATION SEXUAL RELATIONSHIP. A MOM is where one spouse is gay and one spouse is straight. That is who responded to this survey people who had parents in a MOM. Regnerus confirms that he found only a few Respondents who were raised in a straight up lesbian or straight up gay home. Here is part of his e-mail to me which he asked me to post.

    [snip]“By the way, one of the key methodological criticisms circulating is that–basically–in a population-based sample, I haven’t really evaluated how the adult children of stably-intact coupled self-identified lesbians have fared. Right? Right. And I’m telling you that it cannot be feasibly accomplished. It is a methodological (practical) impossibility at present, for reasons I describe: they really didn’t exist in numbers that could be amply obtained *randomly*. It may well be a flaw–limitation, I think–but it is unavoidable. We maxxed Knowledge Networks’ ability, and no firm is positioned to do better. It would have cost untold millions of dollars, and still may not generate the number of cases needed for statistical analyses.[end snip] You can read the full e-mail exchange here-
    http://www.boxturtlebulletin.com/2012/06/11/45557

    We know that only 1/3 of Mixed Orientation Marriages attempt to stay together after disclosure and of that 1/3, only half manage to stay together for 3 years or more (and it goes really down hill after 7 years).

    FWIW I agree with Dr. Regnerus Mixed Orientation Marriages (or Mixed Orientation Sexual Relationships) that produce children are VERY BAD for the children. And that is what his study proves. It does not attempt and does NOT assess the outcomes of children raised by 2 loving moms or 2 loving dads. It.Does.Not.

    This pic by Rob Tsinai depicts this research perfectly. I know he will let you re-post it.
    http://wakingupnow.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/quit-damning5.png

    • Thumb up 2

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      I really appreciate your attempt to counter this flawed and dangerous study, but to be honest I find the concept of mixed-orientation marriage a bit problematic; I think you mean a marriage between a man and a woman in which one of the partners is hiding or repressing their true homosexuality, which is a bad situation, but the term also implies marriages between bisexuals and straight people, or bisexuals and gay people. Those relationships are not doomed, or “bad for children.” Shifting emotional attachments, meanwhile, are simply a fact of human nature, and I think we need more emphasis on how to split up without hurting your children, because IT IS POSSIBLE FOLKS, rather than dividing the world into bad parents and good parents based on their sexual lives rather than their actual parenting.

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