A study by sociology researcher Mark Regnerus of the University of Texas at Austin, which found children of gay parents don’t fare as well in adulthood as children raised by both biological parents, moved back into the news in May.
The Regnerus study created a firestorm of opposition when it was published in 2012 but subsequently was vindicated by the university’s research integrity officer. His survey of 2,988 adults ages 18 to 39 examined the outcomes of those who had grown up in a variety of family structures, compared with those who had grown up with both biological parents. The outcomes included such things as employment status, criminal history, marital status, income level, suicidal tendencies, sexual abuse, drug and alcohol abuse and overall happiness. A key finding: Children raised by same-sex parents did not fare nearly as well in adulthood as those raised in an intact biological family.
Almost as soon as Regnerus’ study was published by the journal Social Science Research three years ago, it was politicized. Those who supported traditional marriage used the research as an argument against legalization of same-sex marriage. Advocates of same-sex marriage, meanwhile, attacked it, sometimes viscously; a few claimed the study supported legalized same-sex marriage since it would allow gay parents to raise their children in a more stable home, a factor the study associated with better outcomes.
Now, two sociology professors, Simon Cheng of the University of Connecticut and Brian Powell of Indiana University, have re-analyzed Regnerus’ data and are challenging the findings in the same journal.
Cheng and Powell assert that Regnerus misclassified many of the children by counting them as being raised by same-sex parents when, in fact, they had not been. Cheng and Powell cite the fact that more than half of the 248 respondents included in the group raised by same-sex parents never lived with their parent’s same-sex partner and one-third either never lived with their same-sex parent or lived with them only very briefly, The Washington Post reported May 10.
The researchers said that when these “misclassified children” are dropped from the data, the results show adults who lived with same-sex parents through most of their childhood have outcomes comparable to those from intact biological families. Some have suggested the reason Regnerus’ results showed children of same-sex parents did not fare so well was because of family instability, not their parents’ sexual orientation.
Regnerus, speaking to WORLD Magazine, responded, “I’ve never suggested that instability was not the key concern or that orientation was causal for the outcomes we see.” Most of the respondents who had a gay parent were the product of a dissolved opposite-sex union, Regnerus said in an article in the Witherspoon Institute’s online journal Public Discourse. About half of those with gay mothers spent time with their mother and her same-sex partner in the same household, he said.
Other critics raised concerns that the study was biased because a large amount of the funding came from the Witherspoon Institute, a conservative think tank, and one of the paid consultants and advisers for the research was a Witherspoon fellow.
Regnerus, however, said the funders had nothing to do with the gathering, analyzing or interpreting of the data.
“All funders have agendas,” he said. “It’s up to the scholar to stick to the science, interpret the data, etc.”
The survey never implied same-sex parenting causes children to have negative outcomes, Regnerus said. The data simply showed children of same-sex parents don’t fare as well in adulthood as those raised in intact biological families. Social science just describes what is, it doesn’t assign blame or give credit because it is difficult to discern cause, Regnerus said in Public Discourse.
“I just wish the charged atmosphere could begin to sustain a healthy and fair debate,” he wrote. “Not just yet, it seems.”
In a 2013 interview in the Dallas Morning News, Regnerus said, “As I wrote in the original study, others will approach the study of this subject a bit differently, with different classification rules of thumb or alternative statistical modeling approaches. That’s how science works, and that’s fine. … But when scholars howl on day one of the study’s release – or when bloggers start lecturing me about sampling methods – well, that’s when you know that the matter has escaped the boundaries of normal science and gone off the rails a bit. I hope for cooler heads to prevail in the future, but I’m not optimistic about that.”
Regnerus stated he takes responsibility “for what is written – on a sensitive subject, no doubt – but not for what others make of it. Plenty of social conservatives made more of it than it deserves, while many social liberals went in the opposition direction, mindlessly denouncing it as having nothing interesting to say at all.”
Regnerus is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Arlington and a faculty research associate at its Population Research Center and a senior fellow at the Austin Institute for the Study of Family & Culture. He is among numerous parties who filed an amicus brief for traditional marriage in federal court.
Regnerus is the author of a forthcoming book, Premarital Sex in America, slated for December release from Oxford University Press and author/coauthor of two earlier books. Regnerus holds Ph.D. and master’s degrees in sociology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an undergraduate degree from Trinity Christian College.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Adapted from a WORLD News Service report by Julie Borg and used by permission, with reporting by Baptist Press editor Art Toalston. WORLD News Service is a division of WORLD Magazine, on the Web at worldmag.com.)