Do Children of Same-Sex Parents Really Fare Worse?

A large new survey counters the conventional wisdom that kids of lesbian moms and gay dads are no different from children raised in straight families. But a closer look at the data suggests that the new finding needs to be qualified.

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Adult children of parents who have had same-sex partners sometimes fare measurably worse than adult children from long-term heterosexual married parents. So say the results of a new and sure-to-be-controversial study by Mark Regnerus, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin.

The study — the New Family Structures Study (NFSS) — is bound to put the cat among the pigeons, because it counters previous research on the well-being of children of gay and lesbian parents, which has found that these kids don’t grow up to be much different from those of married hetero couples and that, in fact, kids of lesbian parents are often better adjusted and emotionally healthier.

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The NFSS, in contrast, found that adult children of people who have had same-sex relationships were more than twice as likely as children from intact straight homes to be in therapy “for a problem connected with anxiety, depression, relationships, etc.,” more likely to be on public assistance (but, importantly, also more likely to have been raised with public assistance), less likely to have a full-time job, less likely to have voted in the 2008 elections and tended to have achieved less formal education.

“The empirical claim for no differences [between being raised by heterosexual and homosexual parents] has to go,” says Regnerus.

These effects appeared to be more marked for people whose mothers had had a same-sex relationship than those whose fathers had. And this was especially true after controlling for such contributing factors as the respondent’s age, gender or race, parental education, perceived wealth, whether they had been bullied and how gay-friendly their state was.

Adult children of lesbian mothers were more likely than children of hetero parents to cheat on their own partners, smoke marijuana and get arrested. Grimly, an eye-opening 23% of respondents whose mother had had a lesbian relationship said they had been abused sexually by a parent or adult caregiver, as opposed to 2% of children of hetero couples. (The study stresses, however, that it would be wrong to conclude from its data that the abuser was necessarily the mother or her partner, or that the abuse had anything to do with the parent’s sexual orientation.)

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The study is published in the journal Social Science Research in conjunction with several other papers, all more or less dealing with the same topic. In one study reviewing the previous data on children of same-sex couples, Loren Marks of Louisiana State University draws a bead on the American Psychological Association’s stated position — which is based on said previous data — that there is “no difference” between being raised by a conventional, straight ’til-death-do-us-part couple or a gay couple. That statement is not supported by robust enough research, Marks contends.

Three other sociologists offer modifying views in the issue, including David J. Eggebeen, associate professor of the department of human development and family studies at Penn State, who writes flatly: “These papers do not prove anything.”

Regnerus’s study is bigger and more comprehensive than previous studies, but it has a multitude of problems itself. The first major caveat is who paid for it: the Witherspoon Institute and the Bradley Foundation, two organizations with a socially conservative bent. Indeed, Regnerus  has previously written for such outlets, including Christianity Today (but also more neutral ones, including the Washington Post).

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The NFSS is based on nationally representative surveys of nearly 15,600 people, including almost 250 who reported having a parent who had had a same-sex partner. Previous studies typically included 70 respondents or fewer who were recruited through same-sex networks and told they were participating in a survey on gay families. Regnerus contends these were not random samples.

However, the NFSS isn’t necessarily representative of the current situation either. The survey respondents were adults (aged 18 to 39), and the sweeping changes in public attitudes toward same-sex couples in the last two decades would suggest that these respondents might have faced more stigma than children of gay parents do now.

Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, very few of the respondents lived with a single same-sex couple their entire childhood. Some, it seems, appear to have been the product of a relationship that preceded the parent’s realization that he or she was gay, or the product of one of several relationships of various stripes. Meaning that these children are likely to have experienced divorce or “family disruption” — a known predictor of social and behavioral problems in children.

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Indeed, when the respondents’ outcomes were compared to those of adult children of divorced families, adoptive families, stepfamilies and single parents, the differences were less stark. It’s likely that the variations observed between kids of gay and straight homes is attributable in part to instability, rather than to the parents’ sexual orientation. Further, as Regnerus’s colleague at University of Texas, Cynthia Osbourne, observes in her accompanying commentary: “[A]pproximately 43% of the NFSS respondents whose mothers had a same-sex relationship were Black or Hispanic,” and faced a whole other set of social and demographic challenges — which, again, are known predictors of problems in children — whereas most of the prior studies’ participants were white. Not to mention the high number of NFSS participants whose families had been on public assistance.

Another damning critique: the NFSS compares kids of “any parent who ever ‘had a relationship’ with someone of the same sex to those who lived with both married biological parents from birth to age 18,” says Philip N. Cohen, professor of sociology at University of Maryland, College Park. “It is not about people who were ‘raised by’ lesbians or gay men.” (Only two respondents in the entire survey fit that description.) In other words, the study does not fairly compare apples to apples.

Nevertheless, its methodology was endorsed by well-regarded sociologists, including Paul Amato at Penn State, who wrote in an editorial that Regnerus’s study was “better situated than virtually all previous studies to detect differences between these groups in the population.” When Amato evaluated NFSS data independently, he found, similarly to Regnerus, that “when averaged across [Amato’s] measures of well-being, young adults who grew up with lesbian mothers scored slightly less than half of a standard deviation below young adults who grew up with continuously married heterosexual parents,” he writes. “I would describe this is as a moderately large effect size.” (Amato notes, for the record, that he was also a paid consultant on the study in its development stage.)

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Regnerus, for his part, insists that he’s not out to demonize gay parents. “This is not a parenting study,” he says. “Many gay parents are clearly excellent. I focus on the relationship claim, not the status of the relationship.” He also notes also that “the study can’t answer political questions.”

Both his critics and his supporters echo that statement. “The study makes an important contribution to our understanding of how a variety of childhood family environments are related to outcomes among young adult offspring,” writes Amato. “But these findings — and for that matter, any social research findings — should not be used to restrict the civil rights of any group of individuals.”

This doesn’t mean, of course, that folks aren’t going to try.