Mark Regnerus claims to have produced the first rigorous scientific evidence showing that same sex families harm children. As a family sociologist at the University of Texas, I am disturbed by his irresponsible and reckless representation of social science research, and furious that he is besmirching my university to lend credibility to his "findings."
The recent study by my colleague Mark Regnerus on gay parenting purports to show that young adults with a parent who ever had a same-sex relationship turn out worse than young adults with continuously married heterosexual parents (who are, in addition, biologically related to their children). He calls this latter group the "gold standard for parenting."
But in making this claim, he has violated the "gold standard for research." Regnerus' study is bad science. Among other errors, he made egregious yet strategic decisions in selecting particular groups for comparison.
His definition of children raised by lesbian mothers and gay fathers is incredibly broad -- anyone whose biological or adopted mother or father had a same-sex relationship that the respondent knew about by age 18. Most of these respondents did not even live with their parent's same-sex partner; in fact, many did not even live with their gay or lesbian parent at all! Of the 175 adult children Regnerus claims were raised by "lesbian mothers," only 40 actually lived with their mother and her same-sex partner for at least three years.
On the other hand, to be included in the "heterosexual married family" category, respondents had to have parents who were continuously married from the time of their birth to the time of the survey! Anyone whose parents had divorced between the time they left home and when they took the survey (respondents were aged 18 to 39 at the time of the survey) was not included in this so-called "gold standard."
By casting his net so widely for children of supposedly gay and lesbian parents, and so narrowly for the children of heterosexual couples, Regnerus practically guaranteed that his study would find that those with so-called gay and lesbian parents would fare worse than those with so-called heterosexual parents. His approach selected for people who had experienced far more stress and far less stability than average for their generation, much of which arguably had little to do with their parent's sexual orientation. They experienced more parental divorce, remarriage, and adoption (perhaps preceded by foster care). They were also more likely to be nonwhite and less economically privileged.
Regnerus could have compared young adults who lived continuously in exclusively heterosexual households and those who lived continuously with a parent in a same-sex relationship. But he did not, both because his sample of youth from "gay families" was too small to parse in this fashion and because his sample of youth from heterosexual households of all types would not likely produce many differences from the "gay parent" group.
While Regnerus has the right to investigate any question, he also has the responsibility to report only robust findings. We are dismayed by the poor quality of this analysis. Regnerus is not an expert in family sociology, nor does he represent the views of other faculty at the University of Texas. I have been conducting research on family relationships, including gay and lesbian relationships, for many years. Yet the first I learned of this study was when it hit the press. Had Regnerus walked down the hall and knocked on my door, I would have been happy to explain that stress and instability harm children in any family context. Love and support help children to thrive and succeed. Pseudo-science that demonizes gay and lesbian families contributes to stress, and is not good for children.
Debra Umberson collaborated with three other prominent family sociologists at the University of Texas, Austin, to assess the scientific merits of Regnerus' research. These colleagues include: Shannon Cavanagh, Associate Professor, University of Texas, Austin; Jennifer Glass, Barbara Bush Professor of Liberal Arts, University of Texas, Austin; and Board Member of the Council on Contemporary Families, Kelly Raley, Professor, University of Texas, Austin and Editor, Journal of Marriage and Family
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