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Yes, That Gay Parenting Study Was Bogus: A Reply to Maggie Gallagher

Yesterday on The Plank, I argued that Mark Regnerus’s NFSS study is not a scientific study of same-sex parenting at all, as it claims to be, because it counts a bizarrely wide range of people as “Lesbian Mothers” and “Gay Fathers.” Over at the National Review, Maggie Gallagher responded incredulously. “Professor Corvino is just plain wrong,” she wrote. “Not a single one of these examples would be included in the lesbian mother or father category in Professor Regnerus’s new study.”

Not a single one? Really? Let’s look at my examples. First, two easy ones:

A long-term gay couple who adopt special-needs children
A lesbian who conceives via donor insemination and raises several children with her long-term female partner

These people are, by any definition, gay parents. If Regnerus’s study failed to include them, his study has even worse problems than we thought. I’ll chalk this mistake up to Gallagher’s not yet having had her morning coffee when she wrote the piece.

Now, the remaining examples:

A heterosexually married female prostitute who on rare occasion services women
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

She’s got me on the third one—the woman who has a same-sex relationship after her children were grown. (Maybe I need more coffee. Mea culpa.) But all the others fit Regnerus’s criteria. The survey asked:

“From when you were born until age 18 (or until you left home to be on your own), did either of your parents ever [emphasis in original] have a romantic relationship with someone of the same sex?”

Response choices were “Yes, my mother had a romantic relationship with another woman,” “Yes, my father had a romantic relationship with another man,” or “no.” If respondents chose either of the first two responses, they were then asked whether they had ever lived with that parent while the parent was in a same sex relationship, and Regnerus put them in the “Lesbian Mother” or “Gay Father” categories accordingly, allowing those categories to trump others (and the “Gay Father” category to trump the “Lesbian Mother” category). He did not require that the same-sex relationship be of a particular length or that the partner ever live with the parent. Regnerus himself has acknowledged as much. “I realize that one same-sex relationship does not a lesbian make, necessarily,” Regnerus said. “But our research team was less concerned with the complicated politics of sexual identity than with same-sex behavior.” In other words, quick trysts counted, as long as respondents thought of them as “romantic relationships.”

Gallagher writes that “The study also allows us to determine whether and for how long the child lived with that same-sex romantic partner.” Yes, quite so. Regnerus did indeed collect such data, but he didn’t use it when creating his “Lesbian Mother” and “Gay Father” categories—and that’s the problem. Only 57 percent of respondents reported living with a “Lesbian Mother” and her partner for at least four months (four months!), and only 23 percent reported doing so for at least three years. Only 42 percent of respondents reported living with a “Gay Father” and his partner for at least four months—and less than 2 percent reported doing so for at least three years.

I stand by my original criticism: This is not a study of same-sex parenting at all. But the eagerness of Gallagher and other marriage-equality opponents to make it one, even at the cost of ignoring or distorting its actual content, speaks volumes.

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