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The Regnerus Gay-Parenting Study: More Red Flags

Posted: 07/17/2012 7:23 pm

By now almost everyone has had a whack at the recent Mark Regnerus (University of Texas) study claiming that young adults who report having a gay parent score worse on a range of life-success indicators than children from intact biological families. According to the study, these kids as young adults have lower educational attainment, are arrested more often, and have more trouble in their own relationships, among other problems. Critics have pointed out that the story is mostly one of collapsed heterosexual families, not "same-sex parenting": The great majority of the kids were born to male-female couples, most of the presumedly gay dads and many of the moms didn't get custody of their kids after their relationships dissolved, and few of the kids were actually raised through long periods by gay couples. LGBT advocates point out that sociologist Mark Regnerus accepted $695,000 from the anti-gay Witherspoon Institute to carry out the study.

But many critics have missed one of Regnerus' most unexpected findings, one that may illuminate his study's shortcomings. Specifically, and feeding into pretty much all the other problems, the study diagnoses children of gay parents as having a huge problem with poverty. Here's Regnerus:

Sixty-nine (69) percent of LMs [respondents with lesbian mothers] and 57% of GFs [those with gay fathers] reported that their family received public assistance at some point while growing up, compared with 17% of IBFs [those with intact two-parent biological families]; 38% of LMs said they are currently receiving some form of public assistance, compared with 10% of IBFs. Just under half of all IBFs reported being employed full-time at present, compared with 26% of LMs.

Those are big gaps. And of course they're much at odds with the affluent image of gay families presented in both pro- and anti-gay-parenting literature as well as Modern Family-style popular entertainment. What do they signify?

Probably the biggest single reason is the one cited at the outset: This is mostly a survey of what happens when heterosexual families crack up. (Interestingly, if a married couple stayed together, they were counted as an "IBF," no matter whether one or both partners pursued same-sex liaisons.) Decades of data indicate that children of family breakup do worse than children whose parents stay together, on many variables related to adult success. One reason, though not the only reason, is that they grow up significantly poorer.

But divorce, though important, doesn't explain all the difference. The children tagged as having gay parents had a degree of disruption of family life that went beyond what's found in most divorces. "Fifty-eight (58) percent of those whose biological mothers had a same-sex relationship also reported that their biological mother exited the respondent's household at some point during their youth, and just under 14% of them reported spending time in the foster care system," writes Regnerus. For a substantial number, their biological mother and father had never been married in the first place. Many kids went through periods of care by grandparents and absence of both biological parents. Even those skeptical of gay parenthood might not have predicted this particular cluster of difficulties.

The Witherspoon Institute, discussing the study's findings, adds another clue: "48% of the respondents with a GF, and 43% of the respondents with an LM indicated that they were either black or Hispanic." Those numbers sound awfully high, and they are. They far exceed the roughly 30-percent black-plus-Hispanic share of the U.S. population. Why would young adults with minority backgrounds and a high rate of economic distress report having far more than their share of gay parents? Are they somehow more likely to grow up in homes with actual gay parents? Or are their parents somehow being overclassified as gay?

We can only speculate, but the answer might be: a bit of both.

For one thing, the study is likely to have picked up a number of transracial adoptees. In the years before the so-called gayby boom of recent years, one of the few accepted ways for gays and lesbians to become parents without risk of losing custody was to parent hard-to-place kids from the social-service system, among the hardest to place being older, minority kids, especially those with behavioral, emotional, or medical challenges. Even with superb care from a gay or lesbian adoptive parent, a 13-year-old who's bounced around foster care for years and been pulled in and out of school placements can find it hard to catch up with peers who haven't had those disadvantages.

Another possibility is that kids from poorer, troubled families might be more likely to have a parent coded in the study as "gay." In a move that has come in for much criticism, the researchers applied that label to parents from non-intact families if they ever, even once, engaged in a same-sex "relationship" after the child's birth. As we know, many heterosexuals do enter same-sex relationships from curiosity, opportunism, or entreaty, perhaps especially if they don't have great options otherwise. A lonely straight mom, for example, might check out the grass on the other side of the fence if her "real" husband or boyfriend were serving time, or if she were in prison herself. Parents with chaotic, mercenary, or try-anything-once love lives are more likely to engage in a single, uncharacteristic fling. ("Mom's dating was always a challenge for us; she must have had a dozen boyfriends and once even a girlfriend.")

Regnerus acknowledges that the highly unstable family structures that abound in his study are of limited relevance in predicting the outcome of today's "intentional gay parenting," as it is called, which has burgeoned greatly since the childhoods of the 18- to 39-year-olds he interviewed. But he also insinuates that gays don't maintain stable enough relationships to make them good candidates for parenthood. (His patrons at Witherspoon have advanced exactly the same theme in recent weeks, as has Maggie Gallagher of the National Organization for Marriage, or NOM.) Thus Regnerus speculates as to whether his findings "may suggest that the household instability that [his study] reveals is just too common among same-sex couples to take the social gamble..."

But his study "reveals" no such thing. It's true that most of the kids he interviewed didn't live with a parent's partner for long periods, but he's wrong to jump from that to the conclusion that gay parents aren't as good as (some) straights at settling down into stable home life. What he seems loath to acknowledge is that in much of America through at least the 1980s (and in some places still), gays trying to parent kids from an earlier heterosexual relationship ran very serious risks if they tried to live openly with a partner. Social ostracism of you and your child was just the start. Courts could deprive you of custody, especially if there was an unfriendly ex-spouse in the background; some even forbade mere visitation with a gay partner present. Under this kind of pressure, some gay parents fled to make a new start elsewhere, at the cost of distancing themselves from their children; others hung in there but accepted as part of the deal that they had little hope of setting up house with the right person should that person turn up. How sad that the very atomization inflicted by law and society should be cited decades later as proof that gay parents are unfit to care for their children.

It was clear from early on that the Regnerus study didn't prove what its backers claimed it did. At this point -- considering the way it fails to handle the issues of proper identification of who's gay, divorce, adoption, poverty, discrimination, and disincentives to stable partnership -- it's bristling with more red flags than a rally in central Pyongyang.

 
 
 
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