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Gay Parents Study: Dollarship Disguised As Scholarship

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There are two things we know about the religious right: They have no faith in science, and they cynically distort science to justify their faith.

The latest example is a new study by University of Texas researcher Mark Regnerus, "How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Study." The research will appear in the July issue of the journal Social Science Research, with the data purporting to uncover "numerous, consistent differences, especially between children of women who have had a lesbian relationship and those with still-married (heterosexual) biological parents." The message of this study is that in several categories the children of gay parents are worse off. It is critical to note that this study flies in the face of decades of research that comes to the polar opposite conclusion.

While billed as the "gold standard" of science because of its sample size, upon closer inspection it looks more like fools gold. What stands out and disqualifies this study from serious consideration is that it is an example of what I call "dollarship," which stands in stark contrast to genuine scholarship. Dollarship is when right-wing organizations provide money to produce subpar studies that back their worldview. We have seen such "research" from cigarette manufacturers, the pollution lobby, and certainly the anti-gay industry. Regnerus' ignoble effort falls into this category, with a $695,000 grant from the Witherspoon Institute and a $90,000 grant from the archconservative Bradley Foundation.

Most ominously, Princeton professor Robert P. George is a key member of Witherspoon. George has been affiliated with the Family Research Council and is a founder of the notorious National Organization for Marriage. The chances of a "think tank" tied to George producing a study that shines a positive light on gay parents are about the same as palm trees sprouting in January outside my bedroom window in Burlington, Vt.

The appropriate title of this junk science study would be: "Surprise: Right-wing extremists don't like gay parents."

Aside from the inherent bias, there were glaring methodological flaws. For instance, the study never bothered to answer the question of how children with LGBT parents fare in healthy, stable homes. What it showed is that kids with at least one parent in a same-sex relationship didn't fare so well in broken homes.

"When I look at his data, my main take-away is that divorce and family transition is not a great outcome for kids," Gary Gates, a demographer at UCLA, told The New York Times.

In The New Republic, writer John Corvino puts the study's flaws in perspective:

Question: What do the following all have in common?

  • A heterosexually married female prostitute who on rare occasion services women
  • A long-term gay couple who adopt special-needs children
  • A never-married straight male prison inmate who sometimes seeks sexual release with other male inmates
  • A woman who comes out of the closet, divorces her husband, and has a same-sex relationship at age 55, after her children are grown
  • Ted Haggard, the disgraced evangelical pastor who was caught having drug fueled-trysts with a male prostitute over a period of several years
  • A lesbian who conceives via donor insemination and raises several children with her long-term female partner

Give up? The answer -- assuming that they all have biological or adopted adult children between the ages of 18 and 39 -- is that they would all be counted as "lesbian mothers" or "gay fathers" in Mark Regnerus's new study.

Researcher Jim Burroway, who wrote an exhaustive critique of the study, puts it this way: "Identifying a parent who has had a same-sex relationship is not the same as identifying a parent who is gay, lesbian or bisexual in a functional relationship."

Earlier work from Regnerus had also raised suspicions of partiality. For example, one study focused on the costs of "hookup culture" and he promotes the silly belief that "liberty run amok can create extraordinary personal disaster." While people's decisions can lead to disaster, the problem is never the liberty that allows them to make bad choices. Only one with authoritarian impulses would scapegoat freedom as the root cause for poor judgment.

Legitimate researchers use the scientific method to explore life's complicated issues. Junk science practitioners use tainted money to manipulate science as a method to promote an agenda. A cursory look at Regnerus' work tells me that it that needs to be put under a microscope and carefully examined. When one ponders the results, it seems to reveal more about the leanings of the researcher than it does about gay and lesbian parents.