Regnerus deconstructed: How a new study misrepresents same-sex parents

A recently published study by sociology professor Mark Regnerus purports to show that children of same-sex parents experience a significant degree of negative outcomes, contrary to numerous earlier studies on LGBT parenting. Most notably, the new study alleges that the children of lesbian mothers are more likely to be on public assistance, more likely to be unemployed, less likely to be employed full-time, more likely to be cohabitating, less likely to be married, more likely to have had an affair, more likely to have had an STI, more likely to have been in therapy recently, more likely to have recently thought about suicide, more likely to have been raped, and more likely to have been molested by an adult.

These findings would certainly be surprising – if they were supported by the evidence. While these results have been widely reported as representative of the parenting skills of same-sex parents, the study itself can tell us almost nothing about this. The shortcomings of its design make this impossible.

The study was conducted by surveying a representative sample of nearly 3,000 young adults aged 18 to 39, who were sorted into 8 categories of family structures: an intact biological family of a married mother and father, lesbian mothers, gay fathers, adoptive families, biological parents who divorced after their children were grown, stepfamilies, single parents, and all other kinds of families.

However, the groups designated as “lesbian mothers” and “gay fathers” are actually defined by whether one of the respondent’s biological parents ever had a same-sex relationship during the respondent’s childhood. Little information is given about the nature and duration of these relationships, and the set of people whose parents once had any kind of same-sex relationship is not identical to the set of people who were raised in a household with same-sex parents. Same-sex relationships aren’t limited to committed same-sex couples raising children. This definition could also encompass a same-sex affair outside of an opposite-sex marriage, a parent who services clients of the same sex in the course of sex work, or same-sex activity within the context of an open relationship. For the purposes of this study, these situations are all lumped in with committed same-sex partners raising children.

The labels of “lesbian mothers” or “gay fathers” also ignore the fact that having had at least one same-sex relationship does not necessarily make someone gay, any more than one opposite-sex relationship makes someone straight. In an article in Slate Magazine, Regnerus says, “our research team was less concerned with the complicated politics of sexual identity than with same-sex behavior.” But the study says nothing about the nature or extent of that behavior aside from whether it was ever present to the slightest degree, or completely absent as far as the respondents were aware.

What little data the study does provide in this area mostly pertains to the length of time the respondents spent in a household with same-sex partners, which turns out to be… not much. Of the respondents in the so-called “lesbian mothers” group, who numbered 163, only 57% reported living with their biological mother and her same-sex partner for at least 4 months, and 23% lived with them for at least 3 years. In the “gay fathers” group, numbering 73 people, 23% said they lived with their biological father and his same-sex partner for at least 4 months, and less than 2% lived with them for at least 3 years.

There are two flaws in comparing these respondents to those in the “intact biological families” group as a measure of the effects of same-sex parenting. First, this suggests that while the 18 years spent with one’s married heterosexual parents are responsible for these positive outcomes, the mere months that many respondents spent in a household with same-sex parents must be responsible for their negative outcomes. This completely ignores the effects of whatever other family structures they were a part of during the many years that they did not spend with their same-sex parents. And in the case of those who spent no time living with a parent’s same-sex partner, how could any of their outcomes possibly be attributed to same-sex parenting?

Second, Regnerus’ 8 categories of family structures are not mutually exclusive. A respondent with a parent who had at least one same-sex relationship could also have lived with their married biological parents for their entire childhood, or had a stepfamily, an adoptive family, a single parent, or some other kind of family. Regnerus acknowledges this, and states that he “forced their mutual exclusivity” for the sake of “maximizing the sample size” of the “lesbian mothers” and “gay fathers” groups. Unfortunately, this makes any comparison between the “intact biological families” group and either of the “gay” parent groups practically useless.

Regnerus has filtered the other six groups – biological parents, stepfamilies, adoptive families, later divorced parents, single parents, and all others – so that they consist only of parents who are believed to be exclusively heterosexual. But he’s constructed the two “gay” parent groups so that they consist of a hodgepodge of these family structures. Every other group contains only one type of family. The “gay” parent groups contain potentially all of them.

Regnerus’ treatment of these groups thus fails to separate the possible effects of having a stepfamily, a single parent, divorced parents, married biological parents, or being adopted, from the effects of a parent having at least one same-sex relationship. As a result, the outcomes that he attributes to same-sex parenting could just as well be due to family instability. He isn’t comparing married heterosexual parents whose children lived with them for 18 years to committed same-sex couples whose children lived with them for 18 years. He’s packed the “gay” groups with divorces, remarriages, adoptions and single parenthood, and then compared them to intact heterosexual families. Of course the results would reflect unfavorably on the groups he’s designated as gay. But they don’t tell us anything about the outcomes for children who were raised by committed same-sex parents for a substantial portion of their childhood.

Regnerus himself has admitted to these shortcomings, but claims that there was no way to overcome these limitations. On his blog, he wrote:

One of the key methodological criticisms circulating is that-basically-in a population-based sample, I haven’t really evaluated how the adult children of stably-intact coupled self-identified lesbians have fared. […] And I’m telling you that it cannot be feasibly accomplished. It is a methodological (practical) impossibility at present, for reasons I describe: they really didn’t exist in numbers that could be amply obtained *randomly*. It may well be a flaw-a limitation, I think-but it is unavoidable. We maxxed Knowledge Networks’ ability, and no firm is positioned to do better. It would have cost untold millions of dollars, and still may not generate the number of cases needed for statistical analyses.

Considering how many inaccurate stories about same-sex parents have been published because of what his study falsely claims to show, this is an especially weak excuse. If the data aren’t there, then the data just aren’t there. This doesn’t mean you can misrepresent committed same-sex parents by grouping them with all kinds of disrupted families and different living situations. It means your study simply isn’t capable of examining the competence of same-sex parents. And Regnerus should have admitted that in the first place.

Open letter to our local Supercuts

Hi, local Supercuts employee. We hadn’t been to your particular branch before, and after seeing how you treated our 3-year-old this past Sunday, we won’t be going back. Given that you’re apparently willing to serve very young children, we assumed that you would have some experience handling toddlers who are uncomfortable with haircuts. Clearly we were mistaken.

We fully realize that nobody relishes the experience of dealing with screaming kids. We understand the stress and difficulty of it, and we know this probably won’t be very enjoyable for anyone involved. That’s why we told you ahead of time that our youngest was prone to anxiety and crying during haircuts. If this wasn’t something you felt equipped to deal with, you could have mentioned this at the outset. We would have gladly taken him elsewhere, as we later did with our eldest, even though he would have been much better behaved for you.

But because you decided that you were willing to give our child a haircut, we believed that you – and your manager – would have a somewhat more tactful approach than repeatedly getting in his face and telling him he needs to be quiet because there are other people there. It should have been clear from the state he was in that he was not at all able to cope with what was happening. When a child is so alarmed that his only means of communication is screaming with such sustained intensity that he very well might make himself vomit, he will not be able to comprehend what you are saying.

And even if he were calm enough to understand you when you told him he had to be quiet, he still wouldn’t understand why. At that age, a child has no concept that his distress might be impacting everyone else’s enjoyment of your establishment. And as our son was sitting there, all he understood was that he was terrified. He was simply frightened out of his wits, beyond the use of language, and not amenable to reason. Please try to understand that from his perspective, there were much more pressing matters at hand than your complaints that you can’t stand the sound of children screaming.

We know that such behavior makes your job harder. That’s why my partner held him in her lap for you. That’s why I was doing my best to distract and entertain him the entire time. That’s why we told you we weren’t all that concerned about accuracy – he’s three years old, and he’s not going to be on television any time soon. That’s why, even when we do everything we can to make this as quick and easy as possible, we still put off his haircuts for as long as we can. That’s why we tipped generously even though we had no intention of ever returning.

All we hoped for was that you would show the slightest bit of professionalism as someone whose job it is to provide haircuts. We were already sorry for putting you in that situation. It’s not something we enjoy, and it’s certainly not something he enjoys. If there were a way to calm him and teach him not to be afraid, we would do it in a heartbeat. This isn’t something we want to inflict on you or anyone else. He simply needed a haircut. And everyone needs haircuts, even screaming children.

But no matter how loud he was, remember that he held still for you, the stranger who did nothing but reprimand him when his terror was out of control. He even said thank you, with tears running down his face, when you gave him a lollipop. I dare say he handled the situation better than you did. Even if you had no desire to try to make this any easier for him, simply saying nothing would have been better than what you did. And if you were concerned that his presence would impact your business, you should have been more worried about your own behavior toward a 3-year-old in front of other customers. We won’t be back, and maybe you don’t even want us back, but there will be others like our son. Think about the next fearful young child who walks through your door, and how you’re going to treat them. A little understanding goes a long way.

Zinnia’s parenting adventure!

In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been a little busy recently. That’s because I’ve now assumed the role of stay-at-home mom. The reason I came to Florida was to help take care of my girlfriend’s children, and that’s what I’ve been doing for the past month. The younger one is not yet out of diapers, and the older one is in second grade. This has been an intense, hands-on learning experience, and probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. If you’re like me, and you’re the kind of person who says, “okay, so it’ll be difficult sometimes”, and you think it’s going to be just fine, you still don’t quite understand what you’re dealing with here. Surprisingly, raising children is not easy!

If this is something you’re planning on, you should be aware that you’re about to become an educator, entertainer, counselor, chef and maid, 24 hours a day, forever. You will constantly struggle to find an overlap in your respective conceptual spaces that allows you to explain things on a child’s level. You will lose every last bit of privacy, because there is no longer such a thing as being alone. Sleep will become a precious resource that you will fight to protect.

You will lose your mind from having nonsense conversations with someone who doesn’t quite know how to use words yet. You will regress to a primordial state of eating chicken nuggets and peanut butter sandwiches all day while watching Dora the Explorer and playing with Nerf guns. You will face the challenge of keeping them occupied at all times. You will not have five minutes to yourself to compose anything resembling a complex thought.

Everything you do will be subject to the whims of these living avatars of entropy. All of the autonomy you once had is now contained within them. You will run around all day long until you completely lose your ability to concentrate on anything. You will perpetually have to keep track of multiple autonomous beings who are seemingly designed to get themselves into trouble. If you’re the kind of person who’s obsessed with cleanliness, you’ll quickly learn to stop caring about what you just stepped in. Things will frequently get lost or broken, and that’s just how it is now.

The amount of garbage generated on a daily basis will shock you. You will find yourself cleaning up human waste every day. You will be faced with bizarre, incomprehensible and unspeakably awkward behavior from these developing people. And sometimes, regrettably, you’ll have to resort to heavy-handed incentives when they fail to understand why they need to behave. Essentially, a child is someone who is unable to constrain their volition to accommodate others, and you will have to deal with the ramifications of that.

And you’ll get over it. Yes, you’re probably not ready for this, but you’ll figure it out. You’ll learn to tolerate it, and even take satisfaction in it. The sense of fulfillment that comes from taking on a responsibility like this makes it all worth it. It’s striking to think of your memories of your childhood, and then realize that this is what they’re remembering right now – and you’re a part of it. There is so much joy to be found in making them laugh, watching them learn more and more words every day, and teaching them everything you know. It’s like watching your life grow beyond yourself.

This has been a radical change for me, and I’m sure there’s plenty more to come. But from what I’ve seen so far, I can get used to this.