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Are Gay Parents Really Worse For Children? How a New Study Gets Everything Wrong

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, “How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Study” (NFSS).

Regnerus’s analysis purports to debunk the claim that children from same-sex families display no notable disadvantages when compared to children from other family forms, including intact, biological, two-parent families—what Regnerus calls the “no differences” paradigm. Had the study actually focused on “same-sex families,” it might have shed some light on the issue.

Instead, Regnerus—a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin—asked respondents whether their mothers or fathers had ever had a same-sex relationship, regardless of the duration of the relationship and “regardless of any other household transitions.” He then allowed those answers to trump others in order to increase the “Lesbian Mother” and “Gay Father” sample size and treated all of the family-form categories as mutually exclusive, even though they are not. (To use the Haggard example: although he is still technically in an “intact biological family,” he would be counted among the “Gay Father” families in this study.)

In other words, Regnerus’ “Lesbian Mother” and “Gay Father” categories (unlike the “Intact Biological Family” Category) included children of adoptive parents, step-parents, single parents, and, notably, a large number from divorced parents. Regnerus then observes in the resulting data that the children of his “Lesbian Mothers” and “Gay Fathers” look less like children of married biological parents than they do like children of adoptive parents, step-parents, single parents, and divorced parents. Well, duh.

As Jim Burroway explains in his excellent analysis of the study, “If one wanted to intentionally create Lesbian Mothers and Gay Fathers groups which were least likely to look like an intact biological family, I can’t imagine a better way to do so than to take the steps Regnerus has taken here.”

Unfortunately, this study is bound to be misused in the ongoing debate over same-sex marriage, as evidence for the oft-repeated claim that “children do best with their own biological mother and father.” That claim, as I argue in my new book Debating Same-Sex Marriage (with Maggie Gallagher), “conflates a number of distinct variables, including parental number, parental gender(s), marital status, and biological relatedness….But to the extent that researchers have isolated parental gender, comparing same-sex to different-sex parents, they have found that the children fare just as well in each case.” That finding is in no way undermined by the Regnerus study. And that’s the correct interpretation of the “no differences” paradigm that Regnerus aims, and fails, to counter.

Here’s what we know: disruption and instability are bad for children. This new study merely underscores that fact. We also know that many children are currently raised in same-sex households, with or without the protections of marriage. It is reasonable to predict that same-sex marriage would help such children. Finally, we know that the pressure to remain in the closet has caused many gay and lesbian people to enter ill-considered heterosexual marriages which later end in divorce—again, often causing disruption for children. (There appear to be many such cases among Regnerus’s respondents.)

None of this knowledge, sadly, will prevent same-sex-marriage opponents from citing the study as evidence for their position. That’s unfortunate because it’s illogical and unfair. But it’s especially unfortunate because it misses yet another opportunity to focus on actual child welfare.

John Corvino is chair of the Philosophy Department at Wayne State University in Detroit, and co-author (with Maggie Gallagher) of Debating Same-Sex Marriage, new from Oxford University Press.