Aug. 1, 2012
Last weeks The Weekly Standard featured a cover story by Andrew Ferguson (Revenge of the Sociologists, July 30) about the attacks being leveled at University of Texas scholar Mark Regnerus, who published a journal article in June concerning children whose parents had same-sex romantic relationships. The study largely debunks previous pro-homosexual articles about children of gay parents, which claimed that such children suffer no disadvantages. (The best part of the Standards piece was the cartoon on the cover, featuring Regnerus as a victim of medieval torture.)
Unfortunately, Ferguson also takes issue with a statement by the Family Research Council summarizing the new study. Here is Fergusons critique of what FRC said:
Again, its not Regneruss fault that gay and lesbian relationships were so unstable when todays young adults were children. But the complication should have tempered the overenthusiastic pronouncements of his popularizers. As the conservative Family Research Council put it:
In a historic study of children raised by homosexual parents, sociologist Mark Regnerus of the University of Texas at Austin has overturned the conventional academic wisdom that such children suffer no disadvantages when compared to children raised by their married mother and father.
This is not only breathless but inaccurate. We may concede that Regneruss study could rightly be called historicthe data set he collected is unique and likely to yield interesting findings for years to come. But it is not a study of children raised by homosexual parents. Regnerus did not ask respondents to give their parents sexual orientation; merely whether they knew if their parents had at some point engaged in a homosexual relationship, for however long. The parents may or may not have considered themselves gay, then or now. And many of these children were not raised by a homosexual parent: There were GFs who never lived with their father at all. As a close reading of its title suggests, this is a study of adult children of parents who had same-sex relationships. And the Family Research Councils use of the present tense is jumping the gun. The study is retrospectivea picture of the nation during the last 40 years, much of it before the gay rights movement and the widespread social acceptance of homosexuality. For all we know, and as Regnerus readily admits, the instability, and hence the bad outcomes, could be largely traced to trauma caused by the antihomosexual prejudice of an earlier time.
To summarize, Ferguson calls the FRC statement inaccurate because in the study:
1) The parents did not necessarily self-identify as gay.
2) The children were not necessarily raised by the parent who had a same-sex relationship
3) The data was collected retrospectively from young adults (while the statement used the present tensesuffer … disadvantages).
4) No causal relationship between the parents sexuality and the negative outcomes was proven.
What Ferguson fails to note is that the statement quoted was merely the first, introductory sentence of a larger paper, nearly 3,000 words long (of which I was the author), which analyzed the Regnerus study in depth—and which included explanations of all of these points in the course of its analysis.
Let me go through these points one at a time.
1)Ferguson says, Regnerus did not ask respondents to give their parents’ sexual orientation … . The parents may or may not have considered themselves gay… .
Regarding the first partlater in the same paper, I describe more precisely the methodology by which the lesbian mothers and gay fathers (those are Regnerus’ terms) are identified: Of these, 175 reported that their mother had a same-sex romantic relationship while they were growing up, and 73 said the same about their father.
The second part of this is not a legitimate criticism of the FRC statement at all, because I did not call these parents gay either. I called them homosexual, and while many people may consider those synonyms, FRC has long made it clear that we do not.
Gay is a label of self-identification; but as I wrote in a recent pamphlet (Debating Homosexuality: Understanding Two Views), when we [social conservatives] use the word homosexual as a noun, it is usually intended merely to mean a person who engages in sexual relations with a person or persons of the same sex. (Regnerus asked only about a romantic relationship, not a sexual one, but the measure is likewise a behavioral one.) On that basis, I think you could argue that FRCs reference to homosexual parents is somewhat more accurate than Regnerus’ own references to lesbian mothers and gay fathers.
2) It is true that the subjects identified as having gay parents did not necessarily live with that parent. However, 77% of his respondents did live with the parent while they were in a same-sex relationship. Regnerus data includes more detailed information on that point, so other researchers could certainly mine the data to see if there were differences between children who were raised by a homosexual parent, and those whose homosexual parent was a non-custodial parent.
I made no effort to cover up this point in my Issue Brief. In fact, I said this:
The definition of what it means to have a homosexual parent is also a loose one in this studyby necessity, in order to maximize the sample size of homosexual parents. Not all of those who reported that a parent was in a same-sex relationship even lived with that parent during the relationship; many who did, did not live with the partner as well. Only 23% of those with a lesbian mother, and only 2% of those with a homosexual father, had spent as long as three years living in a household with the homosexual parent and the parent’s partner at the same time. Details like this involving the actual timeline of these children’s lives can reportedly be found in Regnerus’ dataset, which is to be made available to other researchers later this year.
Figures like these suggest a need for more research, to distinguish, for example, the effects of living with a homosexual parent from having a non-custodial one, or the effects of living with a homosexual single parent vs. a homosexual couple.
3) It’s also true that this was a retrospective study—the subjects were young adults ages 18-39, who were asked about their experiences between birth and age 18. But again, this is quibbling—every academic study is retrospective in one sense (the data were collected at some point in the past), and it is hardly unusual to draw generalized conclusions about the present based on data regarding past events. Again, it would be possible to use Regnerus’ data to compare the responses of the older respondents (who had a gay parent growing up longer ago) from those of the younger respondents, to see if changes in the social and legal climate are paralleled by changes in the outcomes for children with homosexual parents.
The FRC paper accurately described who the respondents were and how the data were collected—and, unlike Ferguson, pointed out some notable advantages of this method of data collection:
Another improvement Regnerus has made is in his method of collecting data and measuring outcomes for children in various family structures. Some previous studies collected data while the subjects were still children living at home with their parent or parentsmaking it impossible to know what the effects of the home environment might be once they reach adulthood. Some such studies even relied, in some cases exclusively, on the self-report of the parent. This raised a serious question of self-presentation bias—the tendency of the parent to give answers that will make herself and her child look good.
Regnerus, on the other hand, has surveyed young adults, ages 18 to 39, and asked them about their experiences growing up (and their life circumstances in the present). While these reports are not entirely objective, they are likely to be more reliable than parental self-reports, and allow evaluation of long-term impacts.
4) As to the issue of causality—it is worth noting that even the one sentence of mine which Ferguson quoted did not say that having a homosexual parent causes harm to children. It merely implied that such children suffer disadvantages (by stating that Regnerus study had overturned the conventional academic wisdom that such children suffer no disadvantages).
My paper went into more detail on the issue of causality—and why the inevitable uncertainty on that point in social science research cannot mitigate the importance of Regnerus findings:
Author Mark Regnerus emphasizes the traditional caveat in social science, warning against leaping to conclusions regarding causality. In other words, just because there are statistical correlations between having a homosexual parent and experiencing negative outcomes does not automatically prove that having a homosexual parent is what caused the negative outcomesother factors could be at work.
This is true in a strict scientific sensebut because Regnerus carefully controlled for so many other factors in the social environment, the study gives a clear indication that it is this parental characteristic which best defines the household environment that produces these troubling outcomes. The large number of significant negative outcomes in this study gives legitimate reason for concern about the consequences of homosexual parenting.
The latter point is one made in a paper by Ana Samuel (New Family Structures and the No Differences Claim) that appears on the official website for Regnerus study, the New Family Structures Study (NFSS; emphasis added):
Controls help sociologists eliminate alternative explanations for a given outcome, making the causal link between parenting structure and childrens outcomes more likely when the results are statistically significant after controls.
More precisely, he [Dr. Regnerus] says, the data show rather clearly that children raised by gay or lesbian parents on average are at a significant disadvantage when compared to children raised by the intact family of their married, biological mother and father.
This statement is virtually indistinguishable from the FRC statement Ferguson cited. Fergusons criticism of one out-of-context sentence by FRC is petty quibbling—making mountains out of molehills, merely because the study could not be exhaustively described in a single sentence.
Tomorrow, in part two of this post, I will examine the ways in which Ferguson, on the other hand, made some mountainous errors of his own.