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A Social Scientific Response to the Regnerus Controversy

Date: June 20, 2012

Same-sex marriage is one of the most contentious and vexing issues now facing our nation. It is perhaps in part for that reason that the new study on same-sex parenting by University of Texas sociology professor Mark Regnerus, which finds that young-adult children of parents who have had same-sex relationships are more likely to suffer from a range of emotional and social problems,[1]  has been subject to such sustained and sensational criticism from dozens of media outlets, from the Huffington Post to the New Yorker to the New Republic. These outlets have alleged, respectively, that his research is “anti-gay,” “breathtakingly sloppy,” and “gets everything wrong.” Moreover, demographer Gary Gates and his colleagues contend that Regnerus failed “to distinguish family structure and family instability” in looking at the association between same-sex parenting and child well-being.[2]

Although Regnerus’s article in Social Science Research is not without its limitations, as social scientists, we think much of the public and academic response to Regnerus is misguided for three reasons.

First, there are limitations with prior research on this subject that have seldom been publicly acknowledged by the media or scholars working in the area of same-sex parenting. The vast majority of studies published before 2012 on this subject have relied upon small, non-representative samples that do not represent children in typical gay and lesbian families in the United States.[3] By contrast, Regnerus relies on a large, random, and representative sample of more than 200 children raised by parents who have had same-sex relationships, comparing them to a random sample of more than 2,000 children raised in heterosexual families, to reach his conclusions. This is why sociology professor Paul Amato, chair of the Family section of the American Sociological Association and president-elect of the National Council on Family Relations, wrote that the Regnerus study was “better situated than virtually all previous studies to detect differences between these [different family] groups in the population.”[4] In fact, the demographics of his sample of young-adult children of same-sex parents—in terms of race and ethnicity—come close to resembling the demographics of children from same-sex families in another large, random, and representative study[5] of gay and lesbian families by sociologist Michael Rosenfeld that has been well received in the media and in the academy. (We must also note the irony that Rosenfeld has also used the very same well-regarded polling firm, Knowledge Networks, to gather data for an article [6] in sociology’s top journal, the American Sociological Review, while Regnerus is chastised for doing the same in the Social Science Research audit by sociologist Darren Sherkat.)

We are disappointed that many media outlets have not done their due diligence in investigating the scientific validity of prior studies, and acknowledging the superiority of Regnerus’s sample to most previous research. Likewise, we think it is unfortunate that other media are using the Regnerus study to draw definitively negative conclusions about gay parenting. We are also disappointed that many of our academic colleagues who have critiqued Regnerus have not publicly acknowledged the methodological limitations of previous research on same-sex parenting.

Second, Regnerus has been chided for comparing young adults from gay and lesbian families that experienced high levels of family instability to young adults from stable heterosexual married families. This is not an ideal comparison. (Indeed, Regnerus himself acknowledges this point in his article, and calls for additional research on a representative sample of planned gay and lesbian families; such families may be more stable but are very difficult to locate in the population at large.[7]) But what his critics fail to appreciate is that Regnerus chose his categories on the basis of young adults’ characterizations of their own families growing up, and the young adults whose parents had same-sex romantic relationships also happened to have high levels of instability in their families of origin. This instability may well be an artifact of the social stigma and marginalization that often faced gay and lesbian couples during the time (extending back to the 1970s, in some cases) that many of these young adults came of age. It is also worth noting that Regnerus’s findings related to instability are consistent with recent studies of gay and lesbian couples based on large, random, representative samples from countries such as Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Sweden, which find similarly high patterns of instability among same-sex couples.[8] Even Judith Stacey, a prominent critic of Regnerus’s study, elsewhere acknowledges that studies suggest that lesbian “relationships may prove less durable” than heterosexual marriages.[9] Thus, Regnerus should not be faulted for drawing a random, representative sample of young-adult children of parents who have had same-sex romantic relationships and also happened to have experienced high levels of family instability growing up.

Third, another study[10] recently published in the Journal of Marriage and Family comes to conclusions that parallel those of Regnerus’s study. This study finds that “children in same-sex parent families scored lower than their peers in married, 2-biological parent households” on two academic outcomes, and that these baseline differences can probably be attributed in part to higher levels of family instability in same-sex families, compared to intact, biological married families. This study was also based on a large, nationally representative, and random survey of school-age children; moreover, the same-sex parents in this study lived together. The parallels between the findings in this study and Regnerus’s study call into question the New Republic’s claim that the Regnerus study “gets everything wrong.”

To be clear: We do not think that these new studies settle the nation’s ongoing debate about gay parenting, same-sex marriage, and the welfare of children. In fact, research on same-sex parenting based on nationally representative samples is still in its infancy. But we think that the Regnerus study, which is one of the first to rely on a large, random, and representative sample of children from parents who have experienced same-sex relationships, has helped to inform the ongoing scholarly and public conversation about same-sex families in America. Indeed, it is possible to interpret Regnerus’s findings as evidence for the need for legalized gay marriage, in order to support the social stability of such relationships. As social scientists, our hope is that more such studies will be forthcoming shortly, and that future journalistic and academic commentary related to such studies, and this contentious topic, will be more civil, thorough, and thoughtful than has been the coverage of the new study by Professor Mark Regnerus.

 

Byron Johnson, Baylor University

Douglas Allen, Simon Fraser University

Peter Arcidiacono, Duke University

Carl L. Bankston, III, Tulane University

John Bartkowski, University of Texas at San Antonio

Thomas Cushman, Wellesley College

Mathieu Deflem, University of South Carolina

David Eggebeen, Penn State University

Sheldon Ekland-Olson, University of Texas at Austin

Michael Emerson, Rice University

Ana Cecilia Fieler, University of Pennsylvania

Marjorie Gunnoe, Calvin College

Alan Hawkins, Brigham Young University

Jonathan Imber, Wellesley College

Loren Marks, Louisiana State University

Margarita Mooney, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Michael J. New, University of Michigan at Dearborn

David Popenoe, Rutgers University (emeritus)

Stephen Robinson, University of North Carolina at Wilmington

Christian Smith, University of Notre Dame

Rodney Stark, Baylor University

James Stoner, Louisiana State University

George Yancey, University of North Texas

Peter Uhlenberg, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Alexander Weinreb, University of Texas at Austin

W. Bradford Wilcox, University of Virginia

Bradley Wright, University of Connecticut

 

Note: Affiliations listed for identification purposes only.

 



[1] Mark Regnerus. 2012. “How Different Are the Adult Children of Parents Who Have Same-Sex Relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Study.” Social Science Research 41:4 (Forthcoming).

[2]
Gary Gates et. al. 2012. “Letter to the Editors and Advisory Editors of Social Science Research.Social Science Research (forthcoming).
[3]
Loren Marks. 2012. “Same-sex Parenting and Children’s Outcomes: A Closer Examination of the American Psychological Association’s Brief on Lesbian and Gay Parenting.” Social Science Research 41:4  (Forthcoming).
[4]
Paul Amato. 2012. “The Well-being of Children with Gay and Lesbian Parents.” Social Science Research 41:4 (Forthcoming).
[5] Michael Rosenfeld. 2010. “Nontraditional Families and Childhood Progress Through School.” Demography 47:3: 755–775.
[6] Michael J. Rosenfeld and Reuben J. Thomas. 2012. “Searching for A Mate: The Rise of the Internet as a Social Intermediary” American Sociological Review 77: 523-547.
[7]
Regnerus. 2012. P. 766.
[8]
Gunnar Andersson et al. 2006. “The Demographics of Same-Sex Marriages in Norway and Sweden.” Demography 43: 79-98; Matthijs Kalmijn et al. 2007. “Income Dynamics in Couples and the Dissolution of Marriage and Cohabitation.” Demography 44: 159-179; Charles Q. Strohm. 2010. The Formation and Stability of Same-Sex and Different-Sex Relationships. Los Angeles: University of California Sociology Department Dissertation.
[9]
Timothy Biblarz and Judith Stacey. 2010. “How Does the Gender of Parents Matter?” Journal of Marriage and Family 72: 3-22.
[10] Daniel Potter. 2012. “Same-Sex Parent Families and Children’s Academic Achievement.” Journal of Marriage and Family 74: 556-571.