After Regnerus debacle, where are the apologies?

Now that an internal audit at Social Science Research has confirmed that Mark Regnerus’ “gay parenting” study was indeed so badly flawed it never should have survived peer review, it’s safe to say that we can move past examining the specifics of how it went wrong, and start looking at the deeper question of why so many in the media and the right wing readily accepted its conclusions with little critical scrutiny while dismissing the valid concerns raised by others. Given that their hailing of the study as a revelation about the supposed inferiority of same-sex parents was actually based on a paper that should have been immediately disqualified from publication, are they prepared to correct the record? What many of them described as a paper about “gay parenting” covered barely a handful of respondents who had lived with same-sex couples as parents for an appreciable fraction of their childhood, far too few to be representative of the true proficiency of same-sex parents. This is not merely a matter of partisan political opinion – Regnerus himself acknowledged these shortcomings. Are these reporters and activists willing to admit they were wrong?

Where is the apology from Maggie Gallagher, who wrote that the Regnerus study is “the best gay-parenting study we have to date” and shows that “the ideal for a child is a married mom and dad”, when the study’s “gay fathers” and “lesbian mothers” groups were actually packed with as many unstable families as possible?

Where is the apology from William Saletan of Slate, who decried legitimate criticism of the study’s faulty conclusions as part of a “liberal war on science”?

Where is the apology from Ed Whelan of the National Review, who described all other studies on same-sex parenting as “schlock social science” compared to the Regnerus study, and claimed that the new study discredits “the junk social science that so many proponents of same-sex marriage propagate”, even as he admitted that he doesn’t “regard Regnerus’s study as authoritatively and definitively settling much of anything”?

Where is the apology from Mona Charen, who claimed the study showed that “same-sex households provide children with the least stability”, when the study actually included hardly any actual households with same-sex parents?

Where is the apology from the Deseret News, which also erroneously claimed that the study’s results reflect “children growing up in lesbian households” – and then, ironically, called for “healthy skepticism for so-called consensus findings, especially with regard to hot-button social issues where the biases of researchers might influence design and interpretation”?

Where is the apology from Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council, who uncritically repeated the study’s methodological sleight-of-hand of defining a child of “homosexual parents” as having at least one parent who ever had a same-sex relationship?

Where is the apology from Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, who cited the study’s clearly insufficient data to demand that gay parents should be denied custody of their children?

Where is the apology from the American College of Pediatricians, a non-authoritative anti-gay group which cited the Regnerus study in an amicus brief in a federal case against the Defense of Marriage Act and again falsely claimed that it was about “children raised by same-sex couples”?

Where is the apology from political strategist Frank Schubert, who claimed that the study’s results warrant banning same-sex marriage?

Where is the apology from Christian Smith, who glossed over the study’s flaws and instead dismissed criticism of its shortcomings as “an academic auto-da-fé” against Regnerus?

Where is the apology from the 18 social scientists who claimed that “much of the public criticism Regnerus has received is unwarranted” and misleadingly described it as a “study on same-sex parenting”? (And if you’re impressed by that number, note that 200 researchers signed a letter which raised concerns about “the academic integrity of the peer review process for this paper as well as its intellectual merit”.)

We can keep going all day. I realize not everyone has an education in social science – I certainly don’t. But the mistakes of the Regnerus study are easily understandable by the layperson, and those in the media whose job it is to report on this have an obligation to do so accurately in the course of informing the public. Here, many of them have failed, and because of their lack of diligence, they’ve unjustly impugned parents like me and my partner in the minds of millions. They are responsible for that. Does this not warrant an apology? Can they admit that they were wrong, that these criticisms of the study’s structure and conclusions were indeed valid, and that they failed to recognize this? Or do they just not do this anymore?

And now I’m on the Godless Business podcast

So, I recently had the privilege of being invited onto the 50th episode of the Godless Business podcast with Andrew Skegg. The topics we covered during the hour include my personal religious history, Mormonism, being transgender, my YouTube fans and foes, Mike Huckabee and Chick-fil-A, anti-gay boycotts, the importance of gay pride parades, marriage in religion and civil law, the difference between marriage and civil unions, and the effect of the contraception mandate on employers. Have a listen if you’ve got the time!

Well, isn’t that embarrassing

Five days ago, an op-ed in support of the fatally flawed Regnerus “gay parenting” study appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Breathlessly describing the response to the misleading study as “an academic auto-da-fe”, “inquisition”, “witch hunt”, and a “savaging” by “the progressive orthodoxy”, who are treating him like a “heretic” and “traitor” and “cannot admit their true political motives”, they spend almost no time addressing the actual criticisms of the study, such as its unhelpful and inaccurate definition of “gay parents” and small sample sizes of actual same-sex parents. Their best defense is that the study “is no scientifically worse than what is routinely published in sociology journals.” Is that really the case?

Apparently not. The op-ed now appears even more vacuous and absurd in retrospect. Two days ago, the Chronicle received a draft of an internal audit to be published in the same journal as the Regnerus study, detailing how the peer review process “failed to identify significant, disqualifying problems” and was compromised by “conflicts of interest among the reviewers”. A professor on the editorial board who was assigned to examine how this happened described the paper as “bullshit”, and identified Regnerus’ definition of “gay parents” as something that should have “disqualified it immediately”.

The lesson couldn’t be clearer: When the facts aren’t on your side, you’ll end up looking rather silly.

Live show tonight at 10:30 PM Eastern!

Heather and I will be having a live show on BlogTV tonight at 10:30 PM Eastern time (9:30 Central, 7:30 Pacific). If you haven’t been there before, it’s essentially a live stream with a chatroom attached, and we’ll be taking questions from visitors. It’s usually a lot of fun! So come by and see us at http://blogtv.com/people/zjemptv.

Update: Our show is now concluded. Thanks to everyone who stopped by!

Definitional Nonsense

In many societies, gender has historically been understood as a neat, orderly, and intuitive model. The concept of “man” referred to people who had the same kind of male body, presented in a way that was regarded as male, and took male-designated roles. The concept of “woman” was defined in the same way. These two categories were considered to be permanent, inescapable, and complete: everyone was placed into one of them, and migration between them was unthinkable.

Under this model, explicit definitions of gender involving anatomy, genetics, and sex assigned at birth were associated with whatever clusters of traits were typically exhibited by men and women. And just as it was assumed that someone who was assigned male or female would present themselves in a certain way according to their gender, it was also assumed that everyone who presented as a man or woman had the same anatomical and genetic makeup.

The recognition of transgender people as a discrete phenomenon has changed all this. We’ve come to realize that it simply isn’t accurate to view assigned sex, physical anatomy, sex chromosomes, gender identity, gender roles, and gender presentation as always being in alignment and falling into only one category. Because of this, the traditional definitions of gender have ceased to connect to the reality of the identities, expressions and roles of men and women. Not everyone who was assigned male lives as a man, and not everyone who was assigned female lives as a woman.

As body-based definitions have fallen out of step with people’s identities and lives, our intuitions about what makes a man or a woman have failed us. Just as the previous model provided an apparently easy way of classifying men and women for physical, legal, and sexual purposes, the breakdown of that model has implications for all of these areas. When the beliefs of the past collide with the reality of the present, we find ourselves faced with unexpected and confusing results, many of which turn out to be sheer nonsense.

Ashlyn ParramRecently, 16-year-old Ashlyn Parram was told that she could not take her GCSE exams unless she changed into a boy’s school uniform. When she provided the headmaster with a copy of the UK’s Equality Act, which prohibits such discrimination against transgender people, she was made to sit 40 feet away from the rest of the students. Were it not for her personal medical history, which presumably was not scrutinized in the case of any other students, there would have been no clear reason to see this girl as anything other than a girl. There would be no obvious cause to single out this one girl and demand that she must wear a boy’s uniform or sit apart from everyone else.

Here, the adherence to definitions of gender based on bodily history and birth-assigned sex has led to the plain absurdity of treating a girl who identifies, presents, and lives as a girl as if she were something other than female. And in their haste to stop someone they saw as a boy from wearing clothes designated for girls, they very nearly ended up putting a girl in clothes designated for boys. Their insistence on rigid definitions disconnected from the reality of gender would have led to a situation much like the one they initially sought to prevent. Confronted with the dilemma of either recognizing that anatomy and medical history aren’t the final word on gender, or actively mandating cross-dressing, they seemingly preferred cross-dressing.

Similar problems arise from the opposition to laws which prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity in public accommodations. Such ordinances have commonly been derided as “bathroom bills”, and campaigns against them unfailingly rely on the alleged threat of “men in women’s restrooms”. The “men” they seek to keep out of women’s restrooms are typically transgender women, as viewed through the model of gender which regards assigned sex as definitive. In one of the most notable examples of such campaigns, the Massachusetts hate group MassResistance covertly filmed several trans women entering the women’s restroom at a convention, which they described as “the insanity that will descend on all of America… unless this sexual radical movement is stopped”.

Trans menBut let’s suppose that the people fighting against these bills did get their way on this, and everyone was required to use the restroom matching their sex as assigned at birth. What would happen? Not only would trans women have to use the men’s room, but trans men would have to use the women’s room. MassResistance would have a field day: they’d get to see actual men going into the women’s restroom. Is that really the result they’re looking for – male-identified, male-presenting men walking into the women’s room? If they didn’t know these men were trans, it would be “sexual radical insanity” all over again.

Certainly they might profess to believe that gender is fixed at birth and forever unalterable, but when faced with the real-life outcome of their desired policy, they could very well reconsider whether this is a good idea. In seeking to prevent men from using the women’s room under their narrow model of gender, they would actually be forcing men into the women’s room in reality. Again, when given the choice between updating their understanding of gender, or imposing an outdated model upon a world it no longer fits, they’d rather create the same issue they thought they were trying to prevent: there would be both men and women in the men’s room and the women’s room.

Many jurisdictions have placed themselves in a similar situation by both banning same-sex marriage and either refusing to recognize changes of gender legally, or first requiring people to undergo major surgery. As a result, a trans woman who’s still legally considered male is actually banned from marrying men, and can only marry women. For trans people whose genders are unrecognized, same-sex marriage isn’t prohibited at all – in fact, it’s their only option. This probably isn’t what was intended by people who oppose both marriage equality and legal changes of gender, but there’s really no way around it: for the intent of a ban on same-sex marriage to be applied to trans people, you first have to recognize their actual gender.

How we define gender is obviously relevant to our understanding of sexual orientation as well. For instance, people have often wondered how a cisgender woman could have a relationship with a trans woman who has male genitals, and identify as a lesbian nonetheless. The question itself assumes a definition of gender that relies exclusively on anatomy and assigned sex: lesbians are women who prefer women, but someone with male genitals can’t be a woman, therefore a woman partnered with someone who has male genitals can’t be a lesbian.

Under a model of sexual orientation centered on assigned sex, this logic is certainly valid. But how well does it reflect the reality of people’s sexual identities, preferences and behaviors? This assigned sex model defines straight men and gay women as being attracted to cis women and trans men because of their anatomical similarities, and defines gay men and straight women as being attracted to cis men and trans women. While it may be internally consistent, it doesn’t account for the actual patterns we observe in sexual orientation.

If the identities of gay and straight were used to refer to the definitions of this proposed model, we would expect gay men whose partners are trans men to prefer cis women and have an ongoing pattern of relationships with them as well, simply due to their anatomy. Likewise, we would expect that lesbian women whose partners are trans women would also consistently enjoy relationships with cis men, and straight men whose partners are trans women would commonly have relationships with cis men as well.

But this is generally not something we see happening in reality. Straight men and lesbians do not have relationships with men, but with women, and their inclusion of trans women as partners is consistent with that, not contrary to it. The use of “straight” and “gay” in a purely anatomical sense does not help us to understand the true sexual proclivities of the people who identify as such, because that just isn’t what they’re talking about. A woman who primarily prefers women is a lesbian, regardless of the details of her partner’s genitals, because trans women are women. Here, the flaws in traditional definitions of gender can compromise our understanding of sexual orientation as well – but updating our concept of gender provides clarity.

Ultimately, the strict adherence to archaic models of gender often seems to be self-defeating. By insisting that men will always be men and women will always be women no matter what, its proponents have made their own categories of “man” and “woman” increasingly meaningless for practical purposes. When so many women would be considered “men”, what does saying that someone is a “man” by this definition even tell us? Their terms for people’s genders no longer describe people’s genders.

While their use of that word may have once been exclusively attached to certain traditionally “manly” roles and expressions, they’re now using it to mean almost any kind of identity and presentation of someone who was assigned male at birth. There’s nothing wrong with decoupling our destinies in life from our genders, of course – but if that was their intention, I doubt they would be so strenuously insisting that I’m “really a man”. And while many regard such accusations as deeply offensive, I’m more inclined to see them as simply being wrong. They’re just victims of their own conceptual confusion.

And that proves what, exactly?

On their official blog, the National Organization for Marriage promotes an interview with Dawn Stefanowicz, who’s made a living from talking about how terrible it was to grow up with a gay father in the ’60s and ’70s. Based on her single data point, Stefanowicz has frequently testified against the legalization of same-sex marriage. You might be wondering: how does that even follow? Well, I don’t know either.

NOM’s secret documents show that they allocated $120,000 toward “Children of same-sex couples and their concerns – outreach coordinator to identify children of gay parents willing to speak on camera”, so it isn’t surprising that they would take an interest in Stefanowicz and her story. As long as imaginary threats to children remain a politically effective talking point against gay marriage, NOM will predictably reach for anything that could conceivably back this up – even if it’s just a single, decades-old example.

NOM’s reference to Stefanowicz’s case as though it means anything is just another manifestation of the raw homophobia undergirding their cause. Even if we grant for the sake of argument that Stefanowicz’s childhood was as completely terrible as she claims, all this shows is that it is possible for same-sex couples to be bad parents – something which was never in dispute. But how can this be extended into a case against same-sex parenting in general?

There are plenty of instances of heterosexual couples mistreating their children, and you don’t have to go back decades to find such examples. NOM could use this exact same line of argument to campaign against heterosexual parents as a whole. But they don’t. The difference isn’t one of how same-sex parents treat their children as compared to opposite-sex parents, it’s one of NOM choosing to apply this logic to gay people but not straight people. What do we call that? Prejudice.

Dismiss real issues in three easy steps!

On a largely unrelated video, someone left this comment:

If the general experience & belief of the Christian is outdated & invalid, then why give them validity through focusing so much of your attention upon them? Respectfully, it seems as if, in your presentation & discussions, you hope(?) to bring them to a place where they will embrace, accept, & bless alternative sexual lifestyles via reason or ridicule. It almost seems as if you want them to validate you. Is this accurate at some level within you?

I was actually impressed by how, in just a paragraph, they managed to invalidate legitimate concerns so thoroughly and in so many ways. It almost makes me think this is practically a reflex action for such people. I figure it’s worth dissecting just how they do this – it happens so quickly, it could otherwise easily pass unnoticed.

So, what did this person do?

1. Flip the script, shift responsibility: “why give them validity through focusing so much of your attention upon them?” Our refutation of wrong reasoning and wrong beliefs is instead cast as an affirmation of this, simply due to the fact that we said anything about it at all. This sets up an obvious double bind. We can either say nothing, let this wrongness pass completely unchallenged, and be perceived as not taking issue with it, or we can say something and be accused of validating the wrongness just by talking about it. Is a majority of society Christian? It’s the atheists’ fault. Is our country still widely homophobic? Must be because of gay people.

There remains no accepted way to express disagreement or criticism – anything we do will always be turned against us, because of the fundamentally ridiculous implication that those who disagree are the ones responsible for validating the wrongness, rather than the vast majority who agree with and openly validate said wrongness.

2. Otherize: “alternative sexual lifestyles”. Depicting being gay, being trans, being an atheist, or any other such “lifestyle” that’s out of the traditional mainstream as an “alternative” means implicitly treating the alternative to this – being straight, cis, religious, etc. – as some kind of default. It positions that particular “lifestyle” as something that’s inherent to us all unless we choose otherwise, as though we’re all born heterosexual and cisgender and believing in some kind of god. It gives all of this a nice little seal of approval reading Official Life Path™; anything else basically amounts to running a nightly build of some unofficial fork at your own risk.

What differences we have are used to portray us as a fundamentally different people – not merely exhibiting some small fraction of the variety that occurs across all of humanity, but dissimilar enough from others to warrant placing us into a whole new category of lifestyle.

3. Personalize and isolate: “It almost seems as if you want them to validate you. Is this accurate at some level within you?” Finally, our stance on the issue at hand is condescendingly reduced to a mere personal issue, a presumably pathological need for validation. To distract from the actual issue, they’ve instead shifted the focus to (their guesses about) our psychology and personal needs. The reality of the situation is disregarded and erased, and our position on it is treated not as a reaction to an actual problem, but just the product of some imaginary windmill-tilting quest that exists entirely in the minds of a few deluded individuals. It almost suggests that our very understanding of the situation may be wholly disconnected from reality.

But even if they insist on making this about us as individuals, that does not erase the problem itself, hard as they may try to ignore it. Just because something is personal does not mean it is only personal. We have no choice in being impacted by common prejudices on a personal level – this is necessarily a personal matter. But it is not just in our heads. Those prejudices still exist, and insofar as you care about people’s lives and well-being, you should care about how these things affect us. We would like to be able to hold our partner’s hand in public without having to watch our back, talk to people in the course of everyday life without the irrelevant minutiae of gender coming between us and everyone else, and have a fair shot at public office without being required to profess a belief in a god just to have a chance. These are real things, and just because a thing is personal does not mean it is at all minor, insignificant or unimportant.

Personal things are people’s lives. Does this not matter? Not to those who take our objections to such treatment as evidence of mental or emotional deficiency, rather than part of the completely normal, completely human desire to be accepted by others and interact with them on an equal footing without being pointlessly shunned. For anyone else, it’s an entirely legitimate and unchallenged expectation. But of course, when we, the alternative lifestyle, expect this, we’re just being needy. We’re the ones who were affected by something real, noticed it, and called it out – and somehow that means the problem is with us.

What are you afraid of?

Last week, I blogged about Christian Post writer Matt Moore, a self-described “redeemed sinner” who posted an open letter to gay youth proclaiming that Jesus would save them from a life of drinking, drugs and meaningless sex. As I’m sure you would expect, I found his goals misguided and his metaphysics incoherent. In response, one of my readers left a comment saying:

Why are people so threatened by Matt Moore’s experience? Because it takes away their excuse to continue to sin? If Matt can be set free from sin and God is real and homosexuality is sin, then it makes them wrong and no one wants have to admit that they are wrong and sinful. Is it easier to mock than face the possibility that Matt may be right? Could it be possible that you are wrong?

This may be the falsest false dichotomy I’ve ever witnessed. It seems this person believes the chance of that entire bundle of claims being true is high enough to warrant serious consideration, and they present it as though this is the only other option, rather than a conglomeration that becomes increasingly unlikely as a whole with every new claim that’s added on. But even if Matt Moore’s experiences contain some element of truth, this still doesn’t demonstrate that any of these other things are real.

While Moore might just be a religious huckster or opportunist, it’s also entirely possible that he genuinely believes being gay means a life devoid of true happiness, and he feels that God personally called him to stop having relationships with men. It could be that his life was indeed terrible, and that his religious beliefs have helped him to become happier and more fulfilled as an individual – unlikely as it may seem.

All of this might be the case, but none of it tells us anything about the validity of various supernatural and theological concepts. Moore’s religious feelings and life experiences do not mean that the idea of “sin” is actually a real thing, or something that ever had any bearing on him. It does not mean that this “sin” is something he was “set free” from, or that it is something that anyone can be set free from. It doesn’t mean that “sin”, whatever it is, has these particular dynamics at all. And it doesn’t mean that being gay constitutes one of these “sins”.

It doesn’t show how the designation of “sin” would relate to any structure of morality. It doesn’t tell us what the consequences are of this “sin”. It doesn’t say why this is something for us to avoid. It also doesn’t mean that any deities really do exist. It doesn’t mean the specific, Judeo-Christian deity named “God” exists. And it doesn’t mean this God is actually capable of “freeing” us from our supposed “sin”.

That’s a whole lot of completely unsupported assumptions packed into just a few sentences. And the idea that we would find this the least bit “threatening” further assumes that we’re just as ignorant as they are. Would they accept the testimony of a supposedly “ex-gay” Muslim as evidence in favor of a specific interpretation of Islamic doctrine and theology? It seems highly doubtful. So why would they think there’s any reason to treat one Christian’s feelings as credible evidence of claims like “God is real” and “homosexuality is sin”?

And atop this logical house of cards, they rest the accusation that we must be seeking an “excuse to continue to sin”, which Moore’s experiences allegedly deprive us of. But for it to be the case that our criticism of his writings is only a cover for our pursuit of a justification to “sin”, we would first have to accept all of the underlying assumptions that are required for the concept of an “excuse to continue to sin” to be meaningful. I certainly don’t. So why would I think I needed any sort of excuse to keep doing something I don’t believe is wrong?

As Megan McArdle said, “It is a vast, and pervasive, cognitive mistake to assume that people who agree with you (or disagree) do so on the same criteria that you care about.” And our Human Conjunction Fallacy here seems to believe the rest of us also suspect that the “God exists, gays are sinning” scenario could actually be true. In their estimation, we consider this probable enough to be scared by the possibility, but instead of accepting its ramifications, we’ve just chosen to stick our heads in the sand.

What they’ve failed to recognize is that we’re not just on the other side of the fence here. We’re actually worlds apart in our beliefs. They think we’re talking on the same level as they are, but they’ve made the mistake of assuming that the entirety of their personal theology is accepted by everyone. It’s rather like believing that those who don’t follow your god must be worshipping the devil. They really don’t understand just how much of this we truly don’t believe. That’s why they expected that out of all the possible sequences of supernatural claims, we would somehow be especially worried about this one.

If anyone is feeling “threatened” here, it’s probably the one who refuses to face the fact that their favorite god is neither loved nor feared by us, but completely absent from the equation. We see their god as no more of a cosmic danger to us than the gods of any other faith, and thus not a relevant factor in our lives. And because of us, they have to contend with the reality that there are people out there who aren’t just selfishly denying a god they know in their hearts to be real, but who honestly see no reason to believe this. Is that so threatening? It shouldn’t be, but I guess it’s easier to ignore the possibility that you might be wrong.